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bear by san

December 2021



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bear by san

Response inspired by a comment from mrissa,

Original thread HERE:

Oddly enough, I just had a big conversation with a bunch of the OWWers (including tanaise, cpolk, palinade, and retrobabble) about this exact thing last night: katallen had an epiphany which she was supposed to blog, and hasn't, so I can't just point you at it, but essentially it had to do with what papersky calls 'mode,' and what John Gardner calls the 'fictional dream,' and all those other very high level syntheses that relate to where a story stops being a pile of words and becomes a story.

Beginning and intermediate writers often want critiques that will 'make a story publishable,' or they want critiques on the idea, 'not the grammar,' or whatever. What it takes a while for any writer to learn, I think, is that you can't take any of those things out of the story and still have a story. And you can't change any of them and still have the same story.

Which is what we're talking about: or more precisely, you're talking about the story and the rest of us are talking about the building blocks, currently.

Once I figured out what Kat was getting at (and she's brilliant. brilliant), I went back to the old metaphor I always wind up using of a house. The beginning writer comes to the pro writer or editor and says, 'critique my story,' when what he has is a pile of story parts.

In other words, if he were building a house, he'd have some bricks and some cement and some boards and some nails and some wires and stuff....

And the pro--or more advanced--or older and bloodier-nosed--writer comes along and says, "You don't have a house. You have a pile of boards and shingles."

And if he gets it, the new writer starts seeing what the old writer means, and starts swinging hammers around randomly, and knocks together a shack. And he asks the old writer, "How do you like my house?"

And the old writer sighs and says, "Well, it stands up, but there's a lot of stuff that doesn't work here, and if I tug this board that's sticking out it'll go right over in a strong wind."

And the new writer curses and swears and says, "But you're looking at the boards, not the house!"

And the old writer says, "If I can see the boards, it's not a house yet."

And the new writer goes, "God dammit all to hell!" And he builds a lot more shacks. And they all look like houses to him--here's the tricky thing, and the key to Kat's epiphany which she has not blogged yet--because he can see what the house is supposed to look like in his head. And it takes time and distance to see how the shack he's built doesn't match the house in his head.

And the new writer starts messing with blueprints and learns how to swing a hammer and how to measure and how to paint... either consciously, through applied effort, or subconsciously, through repetition and practice--or both.... depending on if he's an analytical thinker or an inductive one...

And one day, if he keeps pushing himself, he gets a house.

And the thing about the house is, you can't really see the nails and the boards and the craftsmanship any more. And then the writer has 'found his voice,' or 'found his stories' and he's not a beginning writer any more. He's a pro, or close to it.

Which is why, in some ways, it's easier to learn how not to do things wrong by looking at bad writing, because the mistakes are obvious in a shack, but somebody who can build a house has learned to paint over them.

Learning to do things right, however, is best learned from noticing what other writers do really well, and practice. Lots and lots of practice, to train the muscle memory in. The old 'million words of shit' or 'now go write for ten years' thing.

So essentially, what you're describing (if I understand you) is coming at the process from the other end--from visualizing the house first. Which is also cool, indeed. because there are a thousand ways to do this, and all of them are right if they work.

A quarter of a million miles isn't really that far.
It took me two Chevys, but I've done it in my car.

--Hugh Blumenfeld


Via Kipling, In the Neolithic Age:

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:-
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

Im glad he chose that number.
*nod* There's no good way to do everything, I think. And mode--thank you for that concept, by the way, thank you thank you--is an incredibly shaping tool. Change one thing and it changes everything.

This rewrite I'm doing now is in part freaky because it's changing the mode of the book--from tight third POV (frankly, it's first-POV unreliable narrator written as third POV, if that makes any sense) to third POV with three POV characters, and the whole *shape* of the book is changing as a result.

I couldn't have done this, I think, until I learned to see the story both as a story and as a pile of tools and materials, all at the same time. And it's still incredibly hard.

I'm completely a bricks and lumber first kind of writer. I'm getting to the point where my shingles and nails are disappearing.

It's been a long, hard trip.
And have you noticed how, the better you get, the smaller the skill jumps get, and the harder you bust your ass for them?
I'm with you on the building of the house and the painting done by pros and all of those things. I'm with you on the nine-and-sixty ways. (Sing me a little "Female of the Species" and I'll chime right in on that, too, but that's not the point just now.) But....

Which is what we're talking about: or more precisely, you're talking about the story and the rest of us are talking about the building blocks, currently.

I think it would be great fun to believe this, because then I could be all lofty about my grand vision and how I am advanced enough to etc. etc. But I think you've underestimated my ability to get the wrong end of the stick.

It is possible to have perfectly good relationships between characters and still screw up the story. It is possible to have a plot that works lovely-well with the setting and still screw up the story. Etc., etc., etc.

(Unlike 90% of people who have ever written a hard SF story,) I don't invoke quantum mechanics lightly. I really do think that intercharacter relationships are just as basic a building block to how I approach stories as character is to how some other people do. I have high level syntheses where one interrelation meets the other, is one of the ways I can tell the difference between the syntheses and the building blocks. I still do get to have the littler bits as well. They're just different littler bits.

It just sounds an awfully lot to me like you're talking about the lines that form a grid in the x-y-z Cartesian system, and I'm talking about specifying a radius and two angles to get to the same point in space -- or, more probably, the same shape. Some things are more easily described in Cartesian coordinates and some in radial coordinates, but if you poke them with a stick, they're the same thing. you think I'll ever stop resorting to physics when I'm trying to make things make sense?
Probably not. *g*

I suspect you're right and we're speaking utterly different languages, because I simply cannot wrap my brain around what you're saying. And I do grok what papersky is saying about being mode-first, but I can't manage to make myself see the intersections of things as things in an of themselves.

Which is probably more a function of how my brain works than anything else: I'm very much a white-space writer, and I tend to think of the story as existing in the spaces between what I actually write as much as in what I write itself.
I don't know that even professional writers can set out and write something "publishable" with nearly the reliability one might assume.

After a certain point, I suspect you can turn out a pro quality story every time. More or less. *g* Whether you can sell it is another matter. Whether it's better than average is a third.

Early stories sell because they rock. Midcareer stories sell because (a) they may still rock (b) one is a Name (c) one doesn't screw much up any more.

My point was more that it's a skill set that one builds, I think, rather than a particular individual story.

Maybe this is why I don't build houses. :-)

Probably a technique that works better for stories, over all.
One day, I'm going to build a house ;)

I think I'm still at the treehouse stage. It looks houselike and it doesn't fall apart *too* easily, but you wouldn't want to live there come winter.

And that board is still showing ;)
Spackle fixes everything *g*

Enlighten me?

Ignorant Britisher not know this spackle of which you speaki