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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

A quarter of a million miles isn't really that far.

It took me two Chevys, but I've done it in my car.

I'm thinking about this because I just did my short story Nebula recs for the year (yeah, yeah, I put it off as long as possible. I don't actually expect the stories I liked to make the ballot, although I kind of hope geekshow's "The Disappearance of James H____" does, if only because if that did, and "Botticelli" did, which it won't, there would be two thinly disguised slash stories on the Nebula ballot, and that would amuse the heck out of me.)

Anyway, self-absorbed digressions aside, the interesting (to me) point for pondering was that, as I learn more about my craft, I become fussier about the fiction I read for pleasure, and far more likely to set books aside and walk away when once I would have plowed through them if I made it to the halfway point. But, counterintuitively, I become more forgiving of failure.

Heh. And, looking at that paragraph, I see I need to explain.

And I want to talk about failure some.

See, here's the thing. Writing is hard.

Well, no it's not. That's a lie. Writing formula fiction, once you know how to do it, is relatively easy. Formula fiction follows a formula, you see, as the name would indicate--and once you know the recipe you can bake that cake any time you please. It's easy. Rising action, climax, resolution, denouement. Repeat with different names and setting. Find something that will serve as a hook to a reader's interest--clever mental puzzles, a breezy style, a couple of engrossing characters, some banter, books that can be read on airplanes without too much trouble, and really, that's all the marketplace demands.

You rarely read an airport thriller that's a complete failure, much like you rarely see a buddy-pic blow-stuff-up movie that falls apart at the end.

And that's because this stuff is easy. It's like turning a cartwheel. Once you figure out the knack, you can more or less do it every time, and your success in the marketplace will rely on whether or not people find your work entertaining.

And here's a dirty secret. You bet I'm out here turning cartwheels. I know how to put that three-act structure plot together. Most people in Western society do, frankly, because it's the storytelling model that's ingrained in our DNA from the very first fairy tale we hear.

Stories, in our culture, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They evolve to a punchline, and then they gentle the reader back down again. And I think writing those kind of stories is a useful bit of craft for a writer to learn, and you will never need to learn to do anything else to write commercial fiction.

But there's this other thing that we call literature. Or literary merit. And that's hard. And by that, I don't mean pseudo-literary masturbation, either, by which I mean that empty shit with a lot of pretty words (or, in some cases, a lot of ugly shocking words) and vague thrashing that doesn't support a core of meaning. Because that stuff isn't any better than straightforward formula storytelling. Worse, possibly, because it's fucking pretentious, in addition to being empty.

And quit looking at me like meaning is a dirty word. It's not.

So, we presume for a moment that there is such a thing as fiction with literary merit, which isn't twaddle. And that, when it isn't twaddle, it's harder to write than commercial fiction is. And that, all things being equal, your average Joe is more likely to blow the dismount on hard things than on easy things.

The thing about at least the attempt of literary merit (and I'm only talking about the attempt, here, because I don't get to claim the achievement for myself) is that it's also a hell of a lot more fun than just pumping out slick fiction. For me, at least.

So yeah, I turn the cartwheels. I graft thriller and mystery and romance plots into everything I write that's longer than about twenty pages (short stories, I get to do whatever I want, thank you), and try to braid them together in new and interesting ways. I try to turn really good cartwheels. Cartwheels, in fact, good enough that if you came for the cartwheels, that may be all you're going to see.

This doesn't always work, of course; witness the number of Amazon reviews I get bitching about the amount of character development in my books. ;-) But I still keep slapping that wallpaper up there, because they sell my books in supermarkets, and that three-act structure and catharsis is what most casual readers are looking for.

...and I do indeed seem to be reaching some of them. (Google Alerts is good. Every so often I catch an online discussion about my work, and get to eavesdrop on it sneakily, and the people who like it (and frankly, it's only the people who like it that I care about, in my professional persona, because they are the ones who will buy the next one) seem divided into two camps--the "this is not deep, but it is fun," group, and the "this Bear is a sneaky Bear, and she has things to say beyond Whee! Stuff blows up!" group. I love them both. They both give me their money.)

On the other hand... I'm not really interested in writing books that aren't challenging--for me and for the reader--and that don't have an argument with themselves about something or another. hernewshoes pointed out that all my books are about ethical dilemmas, and you know, she's mostly right. One-Eyed Jack isn't, and neither is The Stratford Man, really, but the Jenny books are, and Carnival is, and so is Blood and Iron. (Yeah, this is self-absorbed, but it's my blog, and it's December 30th. Get a helmet. ;-] )

Now, yanno, it's certainly possible that I'm a hack with delusions of grandeur, yadda yadda. You can consider that as read. And the fact of the matter is, I do indeed fall flat on my face fairly often as a writer. Because I can turn a cartwheel no sweat, but the uneven bars? Man, there's a jillion ways to wipe out.

Which is why I grow forgiving of failure as I grow in craft as a writer, as long as it's ambitious failure. Because I firmly believe that if you're not falling off, you may not be riding hard enough. And it's easy to succeed if you play it safe. And yanno, my failures are right out there on the page for the world to see, as well.

So that's my New Year's Resolution. To be more forgiving of ambitious failures than complacent successes.

And to wipe out like a son of a bitch, in public, if that's what it takes.


An excellent writer's resolution...
::cheers madly::
Brilliant post.

... and all the people said; "amen".
You are effing inspirational. Serious.

*raises glass*
And to wipe out like a son of a bitch, in public, if that's what it takes.

Yeah. Who else is in?
Chin chin!

Have I mentioned lately that you're the smartest, most intimidating (and yet still lovable) person I know? I feel like the opposite of Marvin when I read your entries - I get a headache trying to think UP to your level. :)
Shucks, ma'am. I dunno; you are a pretty smart cookie yourself.

And totally off-topic, I *love* that icon.
Because, you know, the thing is when you try the harder thing and stick the dismount, it feels like whooshwow. And even if you don't stick the dismount, it's still bon chance and at least I freakin' tried.

Or, to speak in dancerly terms... gimme a 4/4 beat. Kids, I can do figure eight hips to this all damn day and not break a sweat. And in the process I am assured I am easy on the eyes. Or I can try to throw some rib work and some hip drops and a change up to some snake arms. It could work or it could look like the dog's breakfast. Plus, damn, I could sprain something here, the old girl ain't what she used to be. But it's wicked fun trying.
You belly dance! I used to do that.

Not well, mind you.
You mean this commercial fiction gig is supposed to be easy??? Coulda fooled me...

(Although I do get your point, but I don't think all commercial fiction is "change the names and setting" and it's a piece of cake. Maybe I'm still young at the commercial fiction game, but if I don't care about the characters, I don't care about writing the book.

Sure, I know when to hook, how to make more and more crap hit the fans until it looks hopeless and then somehow resolve it, but it's not an easy stroll in the park, by any stretch of the imagination.

Never has, and I imagine it never will be. *knocks on wood*)

Woo! I made a parenthetical remark go over three paragraphs!
Then there's the books where I don't get why I'm so enthralled/sucked into it, when I now know just how paper-thin some of the craft is.

Patterson, for example.
mmm... she posts erotic pictures and provocatively sexy thoughts too. *loffs*

One od my sensei's favorite expressions was 'Invest in failure.'

You're not going to get very far without it, after all. What's important is to fail well.

...I believe this. I do. And I act on it, and want to act on it. But its impact on my life is weakened by my fear that people judging me - people whose judgment of me directly affects my livelihood, for instance - will disagree. I hate how small a shell I crawl into when someone else has the authority to evaluate my successes and failures.

But I love how I can expand when I take that authority back.
Out, out, begone from my skull!

By which I mean, I've been pondering much the same of late (albeit much less coherently.) That Gene Wolfe bit about putting your head in the idea's mouth, and all.

Putting my pragmatist hat on, ambitious failures are a much tougher sell than complacent successes. But I suppose the point - heck, even the meaning - is to throw the pragmatist hat off and fill it full of bullets.
eah, I mean, it's not like this job pays anything. We might as well have fun. *g*
Like the man said:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
We loves it forever.

Once you figure out the knack, you can more or less do it every time...

This reminds me of Steve Martin's plan to be rich. Step one: Get a million dollars.

know how to put that three-act structure plot together. Most people in Western society do, frankly, because it's the storytelling model that's ingrained in our DNA from the very first fairy tale we hear.

I don't buy the idea that enjoying stories teaches us how to write them. There are an awful lot of people out there writing what they imagine to be beg/mid/end adventure stories, just like the ones they've been watching and reading, that have no chance of climbing out of the slush. Reading a story is not the same thing as learning to create one.

It's simple enough to say that working toward a literary standard is hard without saying that straight-up non-literary adventure is easy. I don't think either one is easy. You say: I'm not really interested in writing books that aren't challenging... and that's cool. I think most people are like that. So let me ask you this: Would you be able to write a strict commercial fiction novel? Could you go through the whole 100K words, plus revisions and the eventual book hate for something that didn't pose a literary challenge?

It seems to me that would be an even more difficult task.

Following your muse is the not the most difficult part of writing--not following it is. Some writers just aren't interested in literary striving. I doubt that makes their books easier to write (the good ones, that is) I acknowledge the existence of a few writers who turn out several books a year that are little more than "pumping out slick fiction." (See my Steve Martin comment above.) That doesn't make the process itself easy for a galaxy of writers, and it doesn't mean that enjoying a story is the same as learning to write one.

[/good-natured grump]
Sorry, but you're wrong. But I see were I may have confused you in one point, for which I apologize.

Once you figure out the knack of it, a three act structure *is* easy. And there are several pretty widely-read books that will tell you how to do it, mechanistically, as if with tinkertoys. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer is one, if you can shovel through its sexism.

Bell's Plot and Structure has a good rep too, but I've never read it.

And trust me, once you figure out how to put these suckers together (and it does take some learning--I don't deny it: see above, "once you figure out the knack") you can do it like clockwork. It's a craft, not an art. You set 'em up, and you knock 'em down.

When I say that most people in Western society know how to put a three-act structure together, I don't mean that most people have the knack of writing one. But I read a LOT of amateur writing, and the bones of that--the attempt towards it--are usually there. It may take a novel or three or a few dozen short stories to really figure out how to work the buttons smoothly, but that's a relatively small investment in terms of the legendary million words of shit, or Gardner's dictum that it takes ten years to learn to write after you leave the classroom in which they teach you the basic tools.

When I say slick fiction, I'm talking about the Hollywood/pulp model at its most naked. One where the character has his problem and his goal (his want and his need, in the parlance) and they're right out there, right up front, and throughout the course of the story he confronts over and over again his inability ot get one or the other, and moreover, his inability to have both. Eventually, the character is shown confronting an established fear and achieving some kind of healing. This goes on while he's dealing with an external plot.

Also, you can create pretty bangup literature along this model. Casablanca, after all, is a three-act structure movie (get the character into the tree, throw apples at him, get him out of the tree, maintain internal and external conflict throughout until both combine a the resolution) but it's also Art.

It's not automatic--please note I compared it to turning cartwheels--but it is easy, comparitively speaking. (which is the context I seem not to have made plain enough for you.)

I can name a bunch of writers who have done it, however--written slick fiction under one name, or a series of names, to support the part of their career they took more seriously. Kurt Vonnegut, Connie Willis...

I can also name a bunch of writers who created slick fiction that is literature. Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, John D. MacDonald.

And I think we can all name a galaxy of writers who started off promising and, either through lack of ambition or the pressures of the marketplace, soon began producing endless piles of work that all looks pretty much the same.

Most of the substantive part of books seems to go on inside the characters' heads, so the ethical-dilemma thing is good.
There was an interesting article in the local rag about a week or two ago about the kind of movie that fails, or succeeds, spectacularly, because the director took enormous risks, and how much more satisfying a spectacular failure can be than a mediocre success. I'll root around and see if I can find it.... Nope, can't find it, but there are a lot of other articles out there on that very subject.

In other words, yes.
Reading you and several other writerbloggers has made just this change in my reading. Thank you for actually articulating what I've been feeling for months.