it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

I will be gone and you may whistle for me.

Let me tell you a short, illustrative story about apartment buildings.

You see, recently I had occasion to give directions to my place to somebody who grew up in the neighbohood. When he tried to find where I live, he got lost. Because you see, I live on a street only one block long, and I live in the only brick apartment building on that street. (The rest of the neighborhood is three families with serried sun porches on narrow lots.) And when I said that I lived in a brick block of flats...

...he assumed that I meant the brick three-family down the block, that faces onto a different street. Because, you see, he knew where this one brick building in my neighborhood was, and so he didn't actually listen to the directions.

Some time ago, I said here that in my experience, most people don't read. They skim and make assumptions. They do this in real life too, and God knows I'm guilty. Sometimes it's damned funny ( the reviewer who commented that all the "good" characters in Blood & Iron were attractive, for example. [1] good characters? [2] they are?, and the one who thought it would be a better book if it were about Hitler ) and sometimes it's very sad, and I used to find it tremendously frustrating. Because when people walk in assuming they understand the pattern that a story will fit, they are either setting themselves up for failure (if the story doesn't conform to their pattern, it's a bad story--I had this issue with a few reviews of Brokeback Mountain that rather wanted it to be a feel-good movie about heroic drag queens) or they will fail to notice the ways in which a story departs from or undermines the tropes.

This isn't to say that there isn't a fair amount of formula fiction out there. There is. Hell, I'm quite possibly writing some of it. I know I'm not qualified to judge.

Anyway, here's the thing. I figured out eventually that there were ways to exploit those assumptions. You still can't get all the readers all the time--actually, I think if you're lucky you get about a third--but half the fun of storytelling is a kind of set-and-spike that you can *only* do with reversal of expectations.

I'm thinking of this because I just finished reading Un Lun Dun, and I think China Mieville succeeds in one of those reversals, in a small way that's central to the core of the novel. I didn't love the book--I thought it was too episodic, and the narrative was heavily padded--but I liked it very much. His protagonist is very no-nonsense, and refuses to play the game or unthinkingly respond to the system.

I liked that a lot.

I'm still working on ways to convince the reader to relax his expectations, though. To lull him into going where you want to take him, and thinking its his own idea. That's a trickier prospect, and a bit like tickling catfish.

p.s.: more on writing for a living:

Me? Oh, I'd rather do this than anything else. Even when it means no health insurance and six months between paychecks and getting a part-time gig to pay the rent and working twelve hour days seven days a week and tearing my hair out because everything I write is crap.

Best job in the world.

Not easy, though. No.

Tags: writing craft wank

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