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March 2017

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bear by san

one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it

with any very considerable degree of exactness.



Fortuitously, this morning, I woke up to a Studio 360 entirely on Herman Melville's, Moby Dick: or, The Whale. The quote I used as a title was mentioned in the broadcast. It's in this chapter. There are two more chapters on the whale in art, here and here.

The whole book is here. It's a pretty good book, actually. I especially like the whaling chapters. The Ray Bradbury phone interview on adapting the script is here.

To put that in context:

For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.



That paragraph, of course, could be about just about anything else you wanted it to be about. I'm going to make it be about writing--because of course, writing is still just like everything else.

Specifically, I'm going to make it be about the art of implication.

Writing is a series of compromises. One of the reasons it gets harder as you get better at it is that you become aware of the compromises you're negotiating and the choices you're making, and they become conscious choices (1). When you're learning to write a novel, you are learning to write a novel. Any novel. To find some kind of a path from beginning to end of the book. It's like a war--you go wherever you can find a path. Any port in a storm.

This, after all, isn't easy.

Later on, if you do finish a book (and its a big if) and you revise it, and you learn from it, and you write another one and another one, you start developing skills. You realize that you have choices--in what you show, in what you don't show, in what you imply and state outright, in which way the plot tends, in what technique you use in any given difficult scene. In the POV the book is told in, what papersky usefully calls the mode (which is the conjunction of scope and POV and so forth that are the underpinning of the narrative--the structure the rest of the book hangs off.)

You realize why you get a different book if you tell it in first person instead of in third. You begin to understand that there are strengths and weaknesses in any choice you make. In the process of becoming an educated writer, you become an educated reader.

You lose the ability to read as a reader. First, you read as an inexperienced writer, and you find yourself comparing everything you read to how-you-would-have-done-it. Some of us, at this stage, become incapable of reading anything. Some of us become incapable of writing anything. Some of us become incapable of doing one or the other with pleasure. Every choice this asshole made is wrong! This isn't the book I would have written at all!

Sadly, some people get stuck in this stage. Some of them go on to review books for the New York Times.

For the rest of us, this stage usually passes. (I find that I can often guess whether a reviewer is writing publishable work by one simple quality of her reviews--whether she's trying to figure out what the author meant to do, and whether or not he succeeded, and doing it in some kind of an organized fashion. If they're bitching about the book they would have written instead, well. See above. [I know this stage intimately. From the inside. I have been that asshole who wanted to turn every book into the book I thought it should have been.] )

Eventually, you learn to read like a human being again, but you never get your innocence back.

Ever.

Fair warning: you pay for what you get. If you want to learn to write books, you pay in your ability to uncritically appreciate a story.

Okay, so, you start understanding these trade offs. You learn, oh, that you can have a completely transparent narrative, or one that's layered. (A few people can manage what appears to be a transparent narrative and isn't, a surface that, when you plunge your hand into it to pick up that pretty rock on the bottom, proves to be wet and cold all the way down, and your fingers brush the stone and can't quite reach it. I aspire to be one of them. I am not. Yet. Somebody tell me when I get there.)

You learn that you will not reach the same people with either book. (A book that's mostly linear, fast-paced, narrative fun is wasted on me. I find them boring. Yes, boring. They sell well, though.) You must pick your audience. (You also try to broaden your audience as much as possible in the process, but you still have to write the books you have in your head, and you are the one that has to live with the bastard for two or five or ten years. Write the sort of thing you love to read. Or at least, aspire to write it.)

All of this is prologue. Because what I really want to talk about is implication.

I learned about this in 2003 while I was writing The Stratford Man. I didn't know what I was learning, and I had been doing it by accident occasionally before then, because I'm generally an inductive thinker, and so to me a thought process is not so much, if a then b, if b then c, if c then d--but "if a and q and z and fox and gibraltar then ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM!"

It's the only brain I've got. Make of it what you will.

Anyway, I hate on the nose stories. Specifically, I hate stories that make everything very plain and forward and use what I call "genre characterization," where the motivations of the characters are very obvious, and very plainly marked out and explained, and the characters are extremely consistent in their reactions and follow predictable emotional paths and--

--I've been married. I have a family.

I don't believe in those people for a heartbeat. People are messy, and many of them don't know why they do things any more than the average two year old does. (The writer has to know, of course, or have a general idea, at least. But that's iceberg stuff.) Some characters are internalized enough to guess why they do stuff, and guess why other people do. (Jenny Casey is one of these. She's go a tremendous emotional intelligence. She's savvy about people. She can tell you why Gabe is the way he is, or Elspeth, or any of her friends or coworkers. Well, except Fred. She has a huge blind spot where Fred is concerned, because she hates him.)

Others? Wander through life constantly gobsmacked. (Elaine is one of these.)

So how do you handle the second type?

You imply. (This--the characterization thing?--is only one place where this can happen. Worldbuilding is another one, and even personal movement. Beginning writers, once they figure out that they are supposed to have blocking, enumerate every movement. Later on, you know how to imply. You don't have to write "He spread his hand, reached out, and tugged her braid" because you know you can write "He gave her braid a yank" and the reader will fill in the rest.)

When I was writing All the Windwracked Stars, I tried to imply a bunch of stuff about the worldbuilding without ever stating it outright. I could not write decent exposition at that stage in my career, and I was still learning the implication trick, which is, in all its many variations, the trick of somehow showing the reader that the inconsistency you're illuminated is a clue rather than a mistake. I'm still not sure how you actually learn to do that, other than by practice. (I seem to be getting the hang of it--at least, in Carnival, there's a bunch of this kind of worldbuilding, and it seems (so far) to have gone down smoothly.)

Roger Zelazny is a master of this. There's a scene in The Guns of Avalon I haul up as an example constantly. Corwin is talking to Benedict, and Benedict is talking not about, but around the death of somebody he cared about. And Zelazny has Corwin say, "I glanced away, and when I looked back his face had returned to normal."

He doesn't have to tell us that Benedict is in tremendous pain. Because the alert reader knows. And that moment motivates everything Benedict does for the next three and a half books, and some of it seems pretty tricky from the outside. But if you *get* that moment, as a reader, you get what drives the man.

Now, here's the thing. That--implying motivation--doesn't always work. There are some readers who won't ever pick it up. There are some times when the writer fails. And like every other skill in the set, it's got to be learned.

And of course there's the added problem that readers who need the first kind of on-the-nose characterization are often the type of people who are not good at reading others, and readers who like the second kind of oblique characterization are often the type of people who *are*, and you have another mess. Because of course then you have people who are reading about characters whose personal interaction style is the inverse of their own...

And if you're Zelazny, you fuck with these people. By, for example, having Corwin repeatedly describe Benedict as dour, reserved, passionless. But then, as he's relating the action, Benedict (Corwin says, "He never smiled.") smiles constantly, gestures, loses his temper, gives Corwin hell for his behavior....

And some readers will come away with "Benedict was dour. He never smiled." And some will come away with "Corwin projects a hell of a lot, doesn't he?" Because the narrative is undermining the narrator.

You can't control the reader. Ever. The only thing you can control is the narrative. And know, going in, that no two people will ever, ever read the same book. Or even the book you wrote.

When you think about it, its pretty freaking cool.




And two point five comments on Hammered:

http://nicked-metal.livejournal.com/256120.html

http://nicked-metal.livejournal.com/256858.html

http://www.freaknation.com/reviews/books/hammered.php




(1)You also, if you're being published, become aware of all the people staring over your shoulder, and the fact that you can't please all of them. A third to half is pretty good, and if you can make one third really love you--well, the thing is, the more people, in general, who really really like a book, the more people, on the flip side, will hate it. This is good. The last thing you want, as an artist, is indifference. Passion. Passion is good. Passion means you're doing something useful.

My friend ashacat loves to quote what she says is an Armenian proverb: "He who tells truth must have one foot in the stirrup."

This is why its good if you piss people off (as long as you also win the love of others), and why writing safe books won't win you an enduring reputation. People do not fall in love with the bland.

Comments

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First, you read as an inexperienced writer, and you find yourself comparing everything you read to how-you-would-have-done-it.

So, that's what's happened to me!

Fascinating post.
It does pass. I had to quit reading fiction for eighteen months before it did, but it does pass.

Hang tough. *g*
"You lose the ability to read as a reader. First, you read as an inexperienced writer, and you find yourself comparing everything you read to how-you-would-have-done-it."

John D. MacDonald said it something like, "Writers react to other writers' work in one of two ways: with crawling envy or sneering contempt."

Not always true, of course, and there are some authors who still manage to transport me, but I can't read something like Patrick O'Brian without seeing what my mother the quilter would say is "every stitch, every last one." For good and for bad.
That is one of my favorite things about the second five books. The fact that Merlin sees completely different people than his father did.
"the trick of somehow showing the reader that the inconsistency you're illuminated is a clue rather than a mistake."

Oh, hey, brilliant! That's really well said, and highlights exactly my (slight) problem with Ken Oppel's airship books -- he's not signalling that properly in his worldbuilding, at least to my taste. (Or they are mistakes! Hard to tell the difference, sometimes.)

BTW, last ten pages of Blood & Iron were not a let down. :)
Yay!

of course, you sort of are the ideal audience for that book. But also, YAY!

...sometimes the mistakes are also happy accidents. *g*
Yes.

You can't control the reader. Ever. The only thing you can control is the narrative. And know, going in, that no two people will ever, ever read the same book. Or even the book you wrote.

When you think about it, its pretty freaking cool.


Totally.


Fair warning: you pay for what you get. If you want to learn to write books, you pay in your ability to uncritically appreciate a story.

And because story is the thread underpinning a great deal of human entertainment (and if, like "reality" tv, it doesn't come with a story a story can be edited on) it isn't just the underpinnings of books show through.

I don't think you have to lose your innocence, or automatically gain wisdom from doing so -- plenty of writers write to audience satisfaction on instinct and impulse -- but... damn it feels like a hit of the good drugs.

And watching Farscape on the good drugs -- oh boy. There are compensations beside getting closer to being able to write the book. I don't think I'd trade the knowledge for my innocent eye back...

Or my old speed for what I can make the fewer words I crank out do.
You can't control the reader.

And err, saving me an lj post -- if you did it'd make the writing pointless (to me anyway). Like a love potion isn't a relationship, writing that controls the reader isn't communication/conversation.
You lose the ability to read as a reader.

This is why, despite a fascination with and love for the craft of writing, I deliberately chose many years ago to not pursue it. Because I love to read, and I didn't want to lose my ability to purely enjoy it. There's a level of abstraction and technique that I can be aware of without losing the utter thrill of being plot-bound*, but I know that beyond a certain point, I'd start getting bogged down, and it's just not worth it to me.

[*which is a point that may be far beyond what other people have - I had this come up when I was a music major. To me, music theory deepened my enjoyment of listening to music. To others, it ruined it. Then again, I never attempted to compose music, either. Understanding it was enough for me.]
Thank you for this post. Wow.
I feel better reading this. Thank you.
You lose the ability to read as a reader. First, you read as an inexperienced writer, and you find yourself comparing everything you read to how-you-would-have-done-it. Some of us, at this stage, become incapable of reading anything. Some of us become incapable of writing anything.

I've never been incapable of reading anything, although I definitely go through phases when I can't read fiction. But I've definitely been in a phase -- for many years now, alas -- when it was difficult for me to write. Head full of stories, or at least story fragments, and writing just wasn't happening. There were always excuses. I don't even think I was always conscious of the reasons -- I just kept finding excuses.

I'm trying to fix that, now.
Thanks for posting this; it makes a great deal of sense about things I hadn't thought about in this way before. (If that parses.)

Re: the tag, "writing is like everything else", it very much is. In a simpler, less crushing way, it took me awhile after I began worrying seriously about medieval studies before I could read any historical fiction again. I've lost forever most of the Celtic Twilight books that helped to interest me in med. st. in the first place and can't turn off the critical filter when reading anything that purports to place itself within the other lands I know, but hey, the training is good for stuff otherwise.... :)

for your review collection

Forgive me if you already linked to these, and for the long spammy comment, but it occurs to me that you may never have seen them. My (ridiculously short) reviews of the Casey books:

(Feb 05)
Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear
I definitely enjoyed this, and am looking forward to the sequel, but she didn't make my 'top 5 SF writers new to me' list like I was hoping from the number of those writers who loved this book. I think I'm just not that big a fan of the crime SF genre. That said, I loved how deeply built her future was. Everything hung together in ways that made scientific and sociological sense, which was very tasty indeed.

(August 05)
Scardown, Elizabeth Bear
Second in a trilogy. This one is less about the gritty noir stuff, more about the woowoo aliens and international political/criminal activity, so I was more interested by it. But I did have a little difficulty keeping up with all the different threads going on. Still very happy with this author, still not in awe.

(June 06)
Worldwired, by Elizabeth Bear
I was really happy with this book. It seems to have taken a step of some sorts above the first two in the trilogy, so that the author has risen in my estimation from 'yes, I can trust this will be enjoyable' to 'Must Find More of Zir Books NOW'. Yay!

Re: for your review collection

Thank you!
On what readers can miss: a few years ago, someone in rec.arts.sf.written posted the assertion that the heroine of Emma Bull's
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<bone dance</i>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

On what readers can miss: a few years ago, someone in rec.arts.sf.written posted the assertion that the heroine of <lj-cut> Emma Bull's <Bone Dance</i> </lj-cut> was based on the author. Since it's explicitly stated after a while that the protagonist is neither male nor female, this required a rather odd reading.

In amateur print, I've had someone read my description of Megan Lindholm's <i>Wizard of the Pigeons</i> and come to the conclusion that I was talking about <i>Mr. Popper's Penguins</i>.

The Pareto Principle applies here, I think:

Eighty percent of the profits come from twenty percent of the customers.

Eighty percent of the problems come from twenty percent of the customers.

Overlap? What overlap?
The Pareto Principle does indeed apply.

I'm going to stare at that Bone Dance thing for hours. I can already tell.
Docbrite was right ;)

Thanks for that very interesting post! I haven't yet lost the ability to enjoy reading other people's writing because of my own writing, and I hope I never do. At worst, I'm more likely to lay a book down and go, "Oh my, I'm never going to be that good..." which I suppose is sort of similar.

Anyway. I'm supposed to be writing. That wrenching velcro sound is me tearing myself away from all the "essential" reading on the internet, and getting back to my story.

Thanks again!
This essay, beyond being just a very interesting and illuminating read, gives me hope. Because I'va already lost the ability to read 'innocently,' and have pretty distinctly moved into the "well, I wouldn't have done it that way stage." Which is to say, a) I'm glad to be apparently progressing and evolving as some part of a recognizable process, and b) Jesus, I'm glad this is just (for most writers, anyway) a stage.
It's horrible and shocking, isn't it?

Nobody warned me about it. I used to have a five-to-ten-book-a-week habit. And suddenly I couldn't read at all!

Eeee.

(Yeah, it passes. In every case I've heard of.)

(Anonymous)

THANK YOU!!

Some of us, at this stage, become incapable of reading anything. Some of us become incapable of writing anything. Some of us become incapable of doing one or the other with pleasure.

OMG, Elizabeth, thank you. I've been struggling through this hole for about a year now, it's nice to know it's merely part of the process and there is hope in reaching the other side. I can't read. Can't write. Can't do a damn thing because my brain's full of bricks.

IT SUCKS!!

And the rest of your post was wonderful too.

Tambo
aka Tamara Siler Jones, thankfully pissing off readers since 2004 ;)

Re: THANK YOU!!

Eee.

Hi, Tamara! Hey, somebody was just raving to me about your third book.

Yanno what worked for me at that point? Lots and lots and lots of nonfiction. (It might not work for you, but... what the hell, right?)
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