writing rengeek magpie mind

December 2014

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writing rengeek magpie mind

the wind is always shifting so don't hang anything on me if you ever want to see it again

So I never told you how I met Razorface.

I used to take the bus into work in Hartford. I lived in Manchester at the time, and I was rather broke. (That's one of those understatement thingies.) There was one winter that was very cold, and the apartment my roommate and I lived in (we called it The Garrett, ladegard and me) was so cold that we slept with heating pads and carried kerosene lamps around with us to warm whatever little corner we were in at a given time. A wind blew through the living room, and the snow melted off the roof almost before it fell.

I had walking pneumonia (though I didn't figure it out until the following summer when my cough finally went away) and I was walking to the bus stop every day.

We got 180 inches of snow that winter. I had a broken heart. All I really remember about it is being cold and hurting all the time, and trying to figure out how to pay the heating bill and buy groceries both.

Anyway, it was November. And it was snowing. And I was on the bus, and I had my headphones on, but I wasn't listening to anything. I was eavesdropping on the guy behind me--a tall, good looking black man--who was talking on his cell phone (remember what cell phones looked like in 1995?). And he was telling his friend about how when he got out of prison he tried to go straight, but he couldn't afford to feed his family or get a place to live, so--his words--"I went back to being a gangster. And let me tell you, I got all my Christmas shopping done."

And I thought, I have to write a story about this man.

A few months after that, I saw a different man on the same bus. A big man, long-legged and broad-shouldered. A truly beautiful man, with a shaved head, dark skin and a ruby in one nostril, his nails manicured, wearing cordovan loafers and a charcoal gray silk suit. There was a gold loop in his ear. It matched the flash of his teeth when he smiled at me, mousy little white girl in a cheap business suit with a wet, chronic cough.

He obviously didn't work in insurance. We'll leave it at that.

Somewhere between those two guys and some of the people I knew in the neighborhood I grew up in, Razorface was born. Somebody called him a gangster with a heart of gold, and of course that's wrong. He's a son of a bitch. He's just a charming one, and one who's maybe trying to do what he sees as the right thing. But he's not a moral animal, to steal truepenny's turn of phrase. 

It's easy to confuse charisma with moral character, of course. We do it all the time. In life as it is in art. But I try never to make the mistake of thinking a character is admirable just because I like him.

I actually find it kind of creepy when I'm reading a book, and the protagonist is doing things that are kind of... morally ambiguous... and something in the narrative reveals to me that I am not supposed to find them morally ambiguous. (I'm having a Kevin Smith Deathstar moment, if you know what I mean.)

Anyway, pursuant to how my brain handles character, Lily's bugging of me has me thinking about how I write and why it doesn't work for some people in a way that's a feature rather than a bug. Specifically, that for me, the character is the story. And either that works, or it doesn't. There's a Paul DiFillippo review of Scardown out there somewhere (I linked it eight months ago or so and can't be arsed to look for it now) in which I recall specifically that he commented that the trilogy was bloated by various personal details, and cited a scene as wasted space that, to me, was pivotal to the entire arc.

It brought home to me something about matters of craft. One of the things I was really interested in when writing the Jenny books--hell, a major ongoing tic of mine as a writer that one might even justify discussing as an ur-theme--was the effect of world events on people. There's this really artificial thing that happens in genre fiction where the entire world starts revolving around the Event. Whereas, in real life, we're far more concerned, on a daily basis, with our love affairs and our children's grades and Mom's heart condition and whether we remembered to make an appointment at the dentist--and the larger world of politics and world events encroaches on that life.

The news, in other words, is a subplot. Until we wake up one morning and the civil war is in our living room.

And the thing is, in my opinion, that stuff--the slopping of the hogs, as I like to call it--is the important stuff. Yes, world events are, you know, worth keeping an eye on. But the thing that makes a difference in your happiness in the long term is how you manage your own life. It depends on whether you maintain your honor as best you can and strive to do well by yourself and others.

I had an argument with Peter Watts a while back about whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance. He didn't think so, because that person no longer had any influence on the wider world.

My answer was yes, of course it does. As much relevance as the life of Beowulf or Kimball Kinnison has. Or the old man, the one with the fish. Or Othello. Or--

...The vast majority of humanity has always been peasants. There is only one human narrative: we are born, we strive, we comprehend--or fail to--and we die.

We are all flecks of dust in the eye of the cosmos. Some of us argue the point more strenuously than others. We are natural solipsists; we are inclined to think of ourselves as important. We like to believe we'd be the guy, like Zaphod, who could eat the fairy cake.

But then, I'm a girl. And a Very Bad Buddhist (1). Which two things may or may not have anything to do with the fact that fiction focused on  absolute hierarchies and problem solving and climbing ladders and conquering the unknown and defending my nest patch from others who would encroach upon it strikes me as rather unsatisfying. I'm reminded again of Cory's "Apres moi, le deluge" comment with regard to the Singularity-as-sour-grapes.

Does that mean that there's no point in exploring? Of course not. The journey is its own reward. We do it because it is satisfying. We  do it because it feels good to have done it. Whether the exploration is internal (philosophy, a character study) or external (up the Amazon by dinghy).

That's the relevance I see, the relevance I seek. I find the explorations satisfying in and of themselves. The spiritual aspect of science fiction, as it were.



(1) for one thing, I'm actually pretty happy on the wheel, and not in any hurry to get off it. Actually, I wonder if that's one of those goal-oriented fallacies as well. I have enough goals in my life. As for the rest of it, I'm happy enough to keep peddling, and not be the center of the world.

Excellence is its own reward.

Comments

Yeah, just because I have a character that is likable and a bigot does not mean I personally condone bigotry. I hate it when people get the author and her views confused with the characters and their views.
I had an argument with Peter Watts a while back about whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance.

I'd read it.
You are my hero.
Heck, I almost tried to write it, once, or at least something very similar. Except it was set in Slovenia. Then I came to my senses.
Besides, there's Hardwired.
That too (although I haven't actually read it).
Oh, do. In your, you know, spare time.

What didn't make it into the essay above is that I prefer narcissism to solipsism, which is why I prefer literature that is about conquering ourselves to that which is about conquering the universe.

Charity begins at home.
Tell me more of this thing you call "spare time"...
Cory and I are co-writing it. (At least, if you'll accept a curmudgeonly, paranoid Welsh green who trusts no technology more sophisticated than a bicycle as a substitute for an Argentinian dirt farmer. OK? One of the side-effects of Boskone is that the delivery date is some time in 2008, but the first half of the first draft has escaped onto the inturwebs somewhere ...)
Heh. That sounds like it will do nicely. :)
The news, in other words, is a subplot. Until we wake up one morning and the civil war is in our living room.

The journey is its own reward.

Brava.
*g* mind you, feminism still isn't an excuse for bad prose.....
Is there any excuse for bad prose, other than a lack of sufficient education?
nope.
1) Solipsism and narcissism - in one, you think you're more important, in the other, you think you're the most important?

2) Hardwired - would that be Walter Jon Williams or some other book by the same name?
1) In one, you think you are the center of the universe. In the other, you're really interested in yourself.

2) Walter's book, yep.
There are stories that don't center around character. I know, I've tried to read some of them. But the only ones worth keeping know the character is the reason for the tale.

I seem to be keeping all of yours.

What did you lose in this move? I always seemed to lose (or permanently misplace, if you prefer) something, no matter how organized or well-packed I was. Sometimes, I got lucky and it wasn't anything I needed right away. ::grin::

Ah, the Moving Gods

I always seemed to lose (or permanently misplace, if you prefer) something,

The Moving/Packing/Traveling Gods demand sacrifice. I tried to give them my sister, once, but they are capricious and only take that which we value. I move again in two weeks, and full expect to be unable to find Mrs. Quinn which I go to unpack the boxes.

Of course, one probably shouldn't pack one's wife in the first place...

Re: Ah, the Moving Gods

Of course, one probably shouldn't pack one's wife in the first place...

If one intends ever to close one's eyes again, no, probably not. :-)
The news, in other words, is a subplot. Until we wake up one morning and the civil war is in our living room.

It's not the moment of encroachment that interests me. It's not even the events of daily life. It's the way that we all live after the war has passed that interests me. Putting together the shattered, broken wreck that is our lives is, to me, the Real Story. That's a big part of why I hated Brokeplot Mountain: I wanted a movie that began in the last ten minutes and followed from there.

I want to read about that farmer, but I want to read about him because his daughter left with the singularity, his wife died of cancer and the only way he gets through the year is through his responsibility to his horses (because, really, if he's in Argentinia he's probably a gaucho). It's not the things that happen to us that make us interesting: it's the way we respond to those events. The way we live with the genocide we committed during that civil war, and try to lovingly touch our child's face with those hands.

That's the story I keep wanting to read, and that so few people will tell me.

Or, to put it another way: Beowulf's story bored me. I wanted to see the story of Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, last of the Waegmundings, closest thing the greatest hero who ever lived had to a son, try to fit into the old man's helmet. That's a story. Guy kills dragon? That's barely even news.
Amen to Bear and amen to you. This is me doing a little tap dance about how right you are. (Tappity tappity tappity.)
There are icons in this world which are tiny squares of perfection. Yours is one of them, imo.

:)
Your argument weren't too bad, neither.

This bit--It's not the things that happen to us that make us interesting: it's the way we respond to those events. The way we live with the genocide we committed during that civil war, and try to lovingly touch our child's face with those hands.--brought tears to my eyes.

Do you suppose the wider reading /viewing public would enjoy that sort of story?

Also, do you have recs you'd like to share?
It's not the things that happen to us that make us interesting: it's the way we respond to those events.

But the things that happen to us happen in response to people responding to events. What happened in Brokeback Mountain was people responding to events, prejudices, pressures that we know about, but didn't see in the movie. The reason "guy kills dragon" is barely even news is because nobody ever tells us why it's this guy, at this time, in this place, who has the sword in his hand. How could someone murder children and then go home and have dinner with his own children?

I think the trouble with writing Heroes is that they aren't people.
I had an argument with Peter Watts a while back about whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance. He didn't think so, because that person no longer had any influence on the wider world.

I think some part of my innards tried to jump out of my mouth and kill something when I read that.

If you flip that argument around, it starts sounding unpleasantly like saying that people matter to the extent that they have an influence on the wider world. If by "wider world" you mean global politics and the fate of the universe and suchlike, I'm going to start looking around for blunt objects. On the other hand, if by "wider world" you mean "creatures other than the individual in question," then I can let my disagreement pass, though I still think you could have an interesting psychological story about a guy all alone on the moon or whatever. But the Argentinian dirt farmer is still going to have relationships with his family and neighbors and so on, and anybody in that state has the potential to be worth telling a story about. Frankly, I'd be fascinated to see the Singularity from the outside, and to find out what it's like to be a member of a new class of underprivileged people left behind by the elites.

Heh. Now there would be a "Left Behind" series I'd read. Not the condemned souls who weren't smart enough to find Jesus, but the average schmoes abandoned by the self-righteous, self-absorbed elite class of the world.
I love you!

Great post - so very much there with which I am in agreement. Especially: the Argentinean farmer, and The news, in other words, is a subplot.
From the very end of Derek Jarman's 1993 Blue:

Our name will be forgotten
In time
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like
Sparks through the stubble.
Lovely. Thank you.
... whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance.

For some reason, this reminds me of Look to Windward, by Iain M Banks, which struck me as having lots of gee-whiz super-futuristic stuff happening ... elsewhere - just off screen, and safely out of the way while an actual story got told.

Thank you. This post generated one of those ah-hah moments for me.
bq. the trilogy was bloated by various personal details

Well, I'd say he did a good-though-clumsy job of pointing out my favorite thing about the Jenny books. Shiny SF, sure, but it's the people and their kinks and aches and messy lives that I care about.
*g* mine too.
If a work can't connect me with not only what's happening, but also how it's affecting the characters, it has lost me. Guess I read by the ol' feminist credo: "the personal is political."
"the personal is political."

Funny, because I write by it. *g*
Last year, I figured out that I can't write a real first draft till I have at least one character; and not just a character role. I have to work from inside a character. This does not mean inability to write in omniscient third person; the implied narrator is a character in the implied frame story. (Now to use this self-knowledge to write stories good enough for professional submission....)

On what's important: There's what people think at the time are the Major Problems; what people of later generations think were the Major Problems -- and the real problems, which might not be either of the above.
Last year, I figured out that I can't write a real first draft till I have at least one character; and not just a character role. I have to work from inside a character.

That's because the story isn't what happened, the story is why what happened mattered, and in order to show that you have to show who it mattered to.

who it mattered to!!

Exactly!
Great post, lots of great comments.
Also, I'd so read about the lost Argentinean and his horses.
It's just a question of how commercial do you want it to be?
Gabriel Marquez comes to mind, there...
Though I suspect, if the guys's got horses, he's considered rich by a lot of the squatters and peasants who live in the area. It may not be as much of an issue there as in parts of Amazonia where they're clearing jungle anywhere they can reach it from the major roads, but still, a lot of folks left the big city slums for free or nearly so land.
Until we wake up one morning and the civil war is in our living room.

*Christ*, that was insightful. Thank you.

I spent a bunch of time looking at Baghdad on Google Earth the other day.

Yanno, it's just a bunch of houses with swimming pools.

Yep.

Yep. yep. yep.

Ever read Bagdhad Burning? She's just...someone. Who lives at ground zero.

Re: Yep.

Yeah.
Specifically, that for me, the character is the story.

This is the way I work. It's good to know I'm not alone.
I would read the dirt farmer book.

It's the coolest idea I've heard all month.
Love your story of meeting Razorface. And when are you going to write the dirt farmer story?

BTW, I've been giving your books as presents. The perfect gift for many people. :)
I'm likely never going to write it. Looks like Charlie and Cory are, however....

(Anonymous)

I beg to correct the record

"I had an argument with Peter Watts a while back about whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance. He didn't think so, because that person no longer had any influence on the wider world."

Hey. I did not. In fact, I kind of said the opposite.

My point was that the story would lack relevance because the wider world no longer had an influence on the dirt farmer. The character would be in a bubble, and thus limited to tales of pure introspection or personal dynamic with whatever (equally isolated) friends and family also lived there. One might find relevance there if one lived in similar stasis; not so much if you're being dragged up an exponential curve at Mach 3, barely hanging on by your fingernails.

Which is not to say such stories don't exist, of course. Up here they're called "CanLit", and IMHO they are not pretty.

I mean, Jesus, woman. You're saying I don't have truck with any story that isn't written with Paul Atriedes as the viewpoint character. You know that ain't true. I actually prefer stories about impactees to those about impactors.

For one thing, there's more of us.

Re: I beg to correct the record

I misunderstood you completely, then. (And no, I'm not saying that you don't have any truck yadda yadda. That's not implied; sorry if it read that way. Blindsight is about impactees, after all.)

OTOH, I think that the wider world not having any impact on that character is not precisely true, or, more precisely, that here's still a perfectly useful story to be told about somebody in that situation.