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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

Writing is too hard to do consciously.

Someone on a list I'm on asked: I was wondering how everyone thought about a story, when creating it.

And I answered:

That's a very nice question.

Any writer can only answer a question like that for perself (*g*), and for me--well, it becomes rather a travelogue.

Once upon a time I started a story with a character, and then I gave him or her a problem and saw what happened. As I developed as a writer, though, I came to see that there were different ways to develop a story (word repetition) and now I'm trying to learn how to exploit all of them simultaneously, because they all have
strengths and weaknesses.

To accomplish this, I started dividing a story up into parts. A character/protagonist, a situation ('idea,' 'setting'), a problem (conflict, plot), a theme, a symbol.

Any of these can provide a story seed, but I need all of them working together to get a story.

And a story can start with any of these things.

Generally, many people tend to talk about 'character' stories versus 'idea' stories in spec fic, and I think that's an oversimplification. Because (in mystery) you have 'character' stories vs 'plot' stories, and --

--you see what I mean. Ideally, you have them all. (where 'you' means 'me'.)

So say you start (as I usually do) with a character. Well, that character has to live someplace, right? So he needs a situation--a world, a backstory, issues that will be involved in the resolution of the story. To be a story, he has to have conflict and resolution, or lack of resolution. Okay, that's three things.

And a story, to me, needs layers, which is where theme and symbol come in: what is the story related to? What is it trying to say? What does it mean? This can all be very understated, but to me in important. What is the story

So, that's all the elements. And some of this development work takes place subconsciously--the more I learn, the more subconsciously it takes place. Although whenever I add something new, it all becomes painfully conscious

It's like juggling.

Add a ball, start all over.

Suddenly, I discover I just can't do things I used to do like magic. I trip over my own feet. My sentences suck. My characters are flat. My plots don't. It's because I'm concentrating everything on the new thing.

It's all good.

As buymeaclue would say, "Doesn't matter. Carry on." *g*

I keep saying that writing is too hard to do consciously.

And it's true, it's true, it's true. It has to become reflex. Because it's too much to keep track of at once. But each new thing has to be learned consciously and then become reflex. And you have to learn to juggle all over again.

cpolk and her take on the same question, here:

Light a fire, burn up all you know
You've had so much time just to let things go--

--Peter Mulvey, "Shirt"


Thanks ever so much for this. You've just very neatly summed up a lot of my own thoughts on how one progresses as a writer (or learner in general).

I remember reading once about how people learn to fence. It said that you can give a total novice a sword and they put up a fair showing, doing some stuff instinctively. You then spend ages teaching them the correct stance and all the moves and make them practice and practice, and at first they appear to get worse, because they're thinking all the time about what to do. But with enough practice, it all becomes unconscious and instinctive again and they make a sudden leap forwards in performance -- until they start to learn some more advanced techniques.

Note to self: I must learn to trust my unconscious. It does know what it's doing if I'd just let it get on with the job.
Oh, you're very welcome.

I blame the smart writers I hang around with. I do like your fencing analogy, however.
I don't understand me, sometimes.

The more I read yours and others' well-reasoned answers to these questions--knowing that I don't really have a proper answer because for me a story/scene/play/poem is what happens when something I read/see/hear/remember fizzles along a specific connection and turns that little lightbulb on--the more I feel that I know nothing about writing and am not worthy (insert Wayne's World sequence), the more I just keep writing. Anything.

Man, that sentence was almost Faulknerian.

And, on that note, back to backstory scene for novel which appears to be growing messages and layers behind my back.


I think the reasoning-out is something that happens after a sufficient number of years of practice, if one happens to the the intellectualizing sort.

If one doesn't happen to be the intellectualizing sort, one just develops the reflexes, but can't explain them.
(Tried to post this last night. Stupid DSL.)

Almost everyone I know uses some form of the same things as basic elements of story. Timprov calls his the Five Pillars of SF: character, plot, setting, theme, and idea/conceit (the thinger that makes it speculative). We were very confused about my fiction until we realized that I don't start from any of those. We were thinking of me as a character starter, and it just wasn't coming out right.

For me, one of the central points of fiction is relationship. All of my novels and most of my short fiction is "really" "about" one or two relationships, and everything else falls out and goes on from there. Those other things, they're nice, but they're not how I work.

I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to talk about what my fiction is really about without using quotation marks, though....
Almost everyone I know uses some form of the same things as basic elements of story. Timprov calls his the Five Pillars of SF: character, plot, setting, theme, and idea/conceit (the thinger that makes it speculative).

Those five pillars are pretty important to writing fiction.

Not to simplify this discussion, but I think that sometimes, there isn't any way to quantify certain aspects of storytelling. Some people just "have" it; others don't have is so easy.

And mrissa, you're relationship starter seems to be encompassing the "character" (from Timprov's Five Pillars) element. If your stories are about relationships between two characters, then you are already building the foundation of your story there. It's not exactly like saying, "I have a character who does x, looks like y, and has to accomplish z" but it is incorporating character development. Without development, you might not have a reason why there's a relationship. Perhaps you are doing it unconsciously.

Would that it were that simple, but I'm afraid relationship ends up having part but not all of character, and usually part but not all of plot. Often it contains part but not all of setting, since any relationship is going to depend to a certain extent on that...well, you get the point, I think. It's not so much a superset of character as an intersecting set with character and an occasional assortment of other fundamentals.

It also gives me a fairly low tolerance of other people screwing up relationships in their books -- and sometimes what seems like bad character development from a certain angle is a character who would have worked in isolation reacting implausibly in relation to others.
To me, a relationship isn't a thing by itself: it's something that exists between two or more characters, or a character and the environment: it's an intersection, not a thing on its own.

So I'm having some difficulty wrapping my brain around what you're talking about, but I'm willing to take your word for it.
That's exactly it, Bear: I see things in intersections, not isolations. I can talk about character and plot and setting and all that separately because that's how other people talk about it, so I've learned. But plot doesn't really work independent of character, or of setting, or of theme or conceit; and the same for all the others. If you try to pull it all apart, there's no there there.

Y'all keep talking about matrices and particles, which is lovely, but I find the wave equations more useful for experiments, myself. (You can take the girl out of the nuke lab....)
Okay, my comment answer just turned into a post on its own.

Watch this space. *g*
A process I've been working on myself, the past couple years. I find that consciously choosing a theme chokes the story—I have to let it emerge from the story—but what you call symbol is essential. I call it image clusters, and my last big leap in craft was realizing that the metaphorical language of a poem has to work together. Images can't be from different domains, but cluster, creating one of the layers of meaning that make a work unified. Furthermore, the domain has to be appropriate for the work (and that doesn't just mean no anachronisms, though that's part of it). You can't just grab the every striking metaphor that comes to mind: they have to build off each other.

All this is as powerful a tool as form for creating meaning in poetry beyond the literal words.

Well, a slight overstatement in there: for small lyrics, a single domain, or maybe two competing domains in competition. For narratives, it works to take a domain for each major character and another for everything else + setting.

Once I made this connection in verse tales, I realized it also applies to prose tales—not that I've been writing many of those lately. It's especially important in more voice-dependent prose, such as fairy tales.

Theme, for me, comes out of the intersection of character, conflict, and imagery. That which binds the three together (in my case, usually ironically) is the theme.

Hmm. This is making me realize I'm using very little imagery in the story in progress. Which means all the more that I'd better make sure it clusters. <scribbles note to self>

That is, I think we're talking about the same thing with symbol and image cluster ...

I think what you're talking about is what's technically termed 'a conceit.' IE, an extended metaphor or set of linked metaphors.

Which is something I use in poetry, but to a much more limited extent in fiction, because it begins to feel heavy-handed to me fairly quickly.

I'm speaking mostly of straight traditional literary symbolism, where a feather can symbolize freedom or a kiss can symbolize redemption. These are things that can increase the emotional impact of a story, used well, because they work on the reader on a subconscious level.
No, not conceit (which I know from, having done my time in the metaphysical trenches). But also not the classical literary symbolism—which, to be honest, I don't use, or only very lightly, because I find the traditional definition too restrictive for them to be useful in any but a heavy-handed way. I'm talking about not objects in the story, but ways of talking about said objects: the imagery, metaphor, similes, et cet. associated with (for ex) a character.

To give an oversimplied example, "she fluttered off," used of a dithery person. The image, in the form of a implied metaphor, is of the woman as a bird. This is part of her characterization, but as such, elsewhere in the story you can't also describe her in terms of, say, an elephant (except for specific effect, if she has changed). It's this unity of images I'm talking about.

I say "oversimplified" because that particular example could be read as simply talking about making sure characterization isn't contradictory, but that's only one (easily described) way imagery applies to description: any time a description isn't literal level only, in fact.

It's another subconscious level thing. And in something as concentrated as poetry, it's crucial—even at 500+ lines. But not what you were talking about.

Wrote that too fast: I meant to clarify in 3rd ¶ that characters aren't the only story objects this applies to.


Okay, what you're talking about is actually something I consciously try to avoid, then. Because it drives me nuts as a reader when something is consistently characterized in terms of a single set of images in anything longer than a short story of about three thousand words.

I may pick a theme for one character (or place, or set of conflicts), a motif, and touch on it now and again, but I also try to wander off those motifs and show contrasts.

Which is what makes styles different, after all.
Well, we are talking different forms. I'm much less imagery dense in prose. Imagery is one of the tools of compression, and poetry aims to be compact.

Not to mention, the trick is to have a broad enough a domain of images that you don't repeat (except for specific effect, such as to ring changes upon it) yet still be narrow enough to unify.

I think of it not as a single set of images, but as all the images coming from the same vicinity, which is a less forced thing.

In prose (I rarely manage poetry myself) I'm not so literal about it that I try to make every image fir precisely. But to more or less make things align in a certain way. In one book magic tends to be cold: but there are a lot of ways things can be cold, so it's not as if the hands of the spellcaster feel like ice every single time, or even that the imagery is always directly associated with the spellcaster, rather than being in the background, or indirectly there. The air might be cold, or a character out of whack with things magical might have a fever, stuff like that.

But it's quiet, in the background (I hope!), and it's a loose association, rather than a tight one.
I think of it not as a single set of images, but as all the images coming from the same vicinity

Er, yes. That's what I was trying to convey with domain. Like "terms and metaphors dealing with hunting, predator, and prey" rather than "everything she does, she hunts."

Yes, that sounds more like what I do. Although I am not by any means strict about it--and different books seem to demand different layerings of imagery.

One story will have a lot of light and shadow imagery. Another will have a great deal of focus on color, or texture, or small seemingly random injuries: a stubbed toe or whatever.

But I'm very much a Chekov's gun sort of writer. I use almost everything, and feel very weird if I don't tie a tight, sharp knot and then leave the ends trailing off beautifully to finish.

"Big Fish" is my idea of a perfect ending, although the movie has other flaws. Everything comes back, the circle knots, the story resolves, and there's a hint of the next story starting.
Yes--every book is different, and needs its own density of imagery. I need to remember that, as I go from the image-rich draft I just set aside to rest before the next round of rewrites to a story that wants something less dense and less obvious.