I don’t write a ton of stuff on literary craft here. (I haven’t blogged a whole lot period in the last couple of months, I know.) But the Twitter chat I had with Ann B. Gelder, who spends a lot more time blogging about craft than I do, should prove of some interest to those who make the enormous life mistake of choosing novel-writing as a career. (Seriously, read her blog. It’s full of good stuff.)
Yesterday, I checked on when I’d started working on my new book. Turns out that its inception date, under the title The Uninvited Guest (the first and least inspired of its many titles), is March 3rd, 2014. The novel doesn’t depend on suspense, so it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the story climaxes with a mass shooting at Old Cabell Hall on the University of Virginia campus.
Since I started working on this book, here are the real life mass shootings that have happened in the U.S. (thanks to Mother Jones):
I hate to imagine how much longer this list will be before I’m done.
If you feel like making yourself useful, start by donating to Equality Florida’s fund for the victims, here.
Last night, I really did start out wanting to work on revisions for the new book. I did, Mom, honest and for true. I know I have a grant application coming due in a couple of weeks and I need the samples to be good, but somehow, I got started on my nemesis, Civilization V, and ended up running Babylon for 5,000 years. As the 20th century started, I held an enormous technological advantage over all opponents, yet Napoleon kept insisting on declaring war on me, le petit fucker. So I’m slaughtering Napoleon’s waves of riflemen and mounted cavalry with stealth bombers, cruise missiles, modern armor, and rocket artillery while he does his dismembered knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail impression, when the computer informs me that it’s scheduled to shut down in 10 minutes. I have my computer do this daily at 6 in-the-motherfucking-a.m. Looking outside, I see that the sun is up and shining, and outside human beings are starting their days.
I need to pull the sitcom move and have a friend lock me in a room with a computer that doesn’t have Civ V installed and tell him, “Whatever you hear, whatever I may say, whatever happens, do not let me out to play Civ V.” It may be my only hope.
Meghan Tift wrote a piece in The Atlantic called “The Agony of Community” that got me thinking about my own relationship, or lack of it, with the Seattle literary community.
Whether we’re behind the podium or awaiting our turn, numbing our bottoms on the chill of metal foldout chairs or trying to work some life into our terror-stricken tongues, we introverts feel the pain of the public performance. This is because there are requirements to being a writer. Other than being a writer, I mean. Firstly, there’s the need to become part of the writing “community”, which compels every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them. We get through it. We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation.
Lately, though, I’ve been asking why.
That’s a question I struggle with too. Not so much because of the stage fright which troubles Tift so much. I’ve been performing on stage since high school, and as long as I inhabit a character–and my public reading persona is a character, albeit one kind of close to me–I’m relaxed under the lights. For me, the trouble lies with ingratiating myself among literary types at parties and events. Simply put, I don’t schmooze. I can’t schmooze. I haven’t the slightest idea how to schmooze. I find the after-reading chats at Hugo House and other local venues to be a whirling agony of chatter. I can’t bear it. My skin crawls at the mere suggestion of a party, or an after-party, or any other event where success is measured by the number of people chatted up. I can force myself to go, and I can sometimes, with great effort, pull off the method actor stunt of remembering a time when I felt confident and amiable and behave like that. But in such situations you should know that, like Patrick Bateman, I simply am not there.
Do I understand the value of schmoozing? Of course. All the chit-chat and gossip and introducing and business card exchanging lead to opportunities to read at public events, get to know influential editors, bluff one’s way into gigs, find out about which agent wants what. Sure, there are plenty of people who can do it but can’t write worth a damn. I tell myself about them to feel better. But there are a few who can both write and muster enough extraversion to rock these gatherings. Such people have tremendous value, and I both admire and envy them. They make artistic communities work, and these communities do a lot to keep literature alive. Sure, they’re not all The Bloomsbury Group or The Algonquin Roundtable, but they keep writers in conversation, with each other and with readers, and that’s helpful.
It’s just never been much use to me.
Maybe it is just my temperament, but I can’t think of a community I’ve been in that I haven’t felt the intense desire to flee. What others find stimulating, I find stultifying. I don’t mind talking to individual members of the literary community. I have writer friends. But when they’re in groups I feel like I have nothing in common with them. One of my favorite George Carlin lines goes like this:
No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.
Like Carlin, I treasure my outsider status. I’ve been an outsider since the age of 3, and it does confer some advantages. It gives me a spot to sit and observe and be, as Lear put it, one of God’s spies. I can say what I want without fear of being kicked out because I was never in. I needn’t feel pressure to seek anyone’s good opinion or use people to help me get ahead in the hierarchy. When I feel confident, I tell myself I’m a rebel standing against all this forced in-person schmoozing and community building. Power to the shy people! I’m going to go write now and fuck all y’all!
But then I look to my left and see the box containing a thousand new business cards. I ordered that number not just because it saved me money, though it does, but because some part of me knows I should be handing them out, which means that I should talk to people who don’t already know how to get in touch with me, that this is the reality, that my struggle against it is futile, and that if I want success as late capitalism defines it (I’m supposed to want that, right? Federal Direct Loans thinks I should) I have to surrender and become a lot better at doing something I really really hate to do.
Extraverts rule the world. We introverts could theoretically foment a coup, but that would involve meeting each other to formulate the plan.
I’m fucking doomed.
The Burien Actors Theatre, a small but well respected professional company in these parts, has decided to give my one-act play, Dr. Kritzinger’s 2 O’Clock first prize in the One-Act category of the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwrights Festival. This means the show will go up six times between May 1st and May 25th, that I will appear for discussion panels after at least some of the performances, and that I will get a not-especially-large amount of money.
Winning competitions of this sort is one of the writing life’s few compensations. It provides a brief respite from the insecurity that gnaws at us the rest of the time. Unfortunately, it also makes us insufferably pleased with ourselves for a brief period. I’m combatting this by reminding myself that this means my job has only started, and there are many, many ways this could all fail before the curtain rises.
Still, I’m more than slightly chuffed.
I haven’t, mainly because I don’t think I ever have included friends, relatives, or acquaintances in any of my work. Any of you who’ve read my works and seen yourselves in them are wrong and should consider speaking to a therapist who specializes in narcissists. Don’t worry. I know a guy.
So I never have had to tell an outraged, or worse, insufferably preening social contact that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. “It’s just fiction, after all. Don’t make a big deal out of it.” Nor have I had some of them replay, “What do you mean ‘It’s just fiction’? That could be the image the world has of me until the sun goes dark, thanks to you, jerk!”
Saying “I (and you) should be so lucky” probably won’t mollify, so I was wondering what might in that situation. A better, or at least more accurate, response would be “Of course that’s not you, any more than the MacBeth of Shakespeare is the historical King MacBeth of Scotland.”
As Northrop Frye put it:
We can understand though how the poet got his reputation as a kind of licensed liar. The word poet itself means liar in some languages, and the words we use in literary criticism–fable, fiction, myth–have all come to mean something we can’t believe. Some parents in Victorian times wouldn’t let their children read novels because they weren’t “true”. But not many reasonable people today would deny that the poet is entitled to change whatever he likes when he uses a theme from history or real life. The reason why was explained long ago by Aristotle. The historian makes specific and particular statements, such as, “The battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.” Consequently he’s judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says–either there was such a battle or there wasn’t, and if there was he’s got the date either right or wrong. But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statements at all, certainly no particular or specific ones. The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to MacBeth to learn about the history of Scotland–you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel that there’s a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.
So if someone approaches you, the writer, saying “How dare you include me in your book”, read them this passage and say, “It’s not really you. I just included the part of you that’s also a part of everybody, the universal you.” If the person remains upset and cries, “But that image of me will outlive me!”, reply that their real complaint is not with you, but rather with death and time.
That should cool them off.
I use Grammarly for proofreading because to err may be human, but who the hell is satisfied with being human?
The story twist is an ancient art, as old as stories themselves–think of the way Achilles gets it in The Illiad or the “You thought God was serious?!?” ending to the Abraham and Isaac story. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of getting tricked. From the beginning of each story they read, they try to outguess the plot. They pick up on clues to predict what the lead character will do next. And while there’s a certain smug satisfaction in being proven right, what readers love is realizing that they’ve been artfully and thoroughly punked.
Why do readers enjoy being conned? Good question. It most likely has something to do with the distinction between the reason people read fiction and the reason they read automotive repair manuals or newspapers. People read nonfiction because they want information: How is Congress doing? What does that grinding noise when I hit the brakes mean? Is my spouse cheating on me? How do I sue my neighbor? If nonfiction writers tried to include twists, their readers would feel jerked around, and rightly so. With nonfiction, we’d like a straight answer, please. Fiction, by contrast, doesn’t deal in information. Nobody reads Pride and Prejudice to educate themselves about inheritance law in the early 19th century. Nobody reads Moby Dick to find out how to prosper in the whaling business. And nobody will read Dave Eggers’s latest because they want the inside story of Google. (Spoiler: Eggers doesn’t know it.) Instead, people read fiction for two reasons: to contemplate what’s perpetually true about human relationships, and (more important for this discussion) to wonder about how human beings will respond to each other in unusual situations.
People love to wonder. If a writer throws characters into odd situations, readers can’t help but ask themselves where does so-and-so go from here? (Or, how the hell did they get into this bucket of molasses, if the story is told in reverse chronology.) That’s why the openings of really great stories have little to do with setting up the world or explaining the lead character’s skills and traits. They’re more about inspiring the reader to start asking questions and guessing the answers. The art of the twist, then, is to get the readers to consistently guess wrong about a vital story element.
The most effective way to do is to select, and properly exploit, the story’s point of view.
Characters in stories are assumed to have limited knowledge of the situation they’re in. The reader, trapped in the character’s head, knows what they know, senses what they sense, notices only what the character thinks is important. As a consequence, if the writer has given the point of view character enough blind spots, crucial information can be hidden there.
Clues can also be shrouded in ambiguity. By placing the point of view character in a series of situations that can be read multiple ways, the point of view character can be put in a position of having to choose. If they choose consistently, but justifiably, wrong, the twist at the end can be seen as the natural end of the character’s bias, motivated reasoning, or what-have-you. Take the movie The Conversation. Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, overhears a couple’s conversation, in which the man says to the woman: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” The entire film’s plot revolves around exactly what’s meant by this sentence. Is it figurative or literal. Does it mean that the couple intends to run away, inform the authorities, or kill the person they’re talking about before that person can kill them? Caul’s interpretation of it changes every time he listens to the recording and thinks he detects a crucial change of inflection or emphasis in his subject’s voice.
Consider Oedipus as an example of both techniques working in tandem. Oedipus’s, tasked by the Oracle of Delphi with ferreting out the evil in his kingdom, swears that he’ll do so even if it’s in his house, even if it’s the closest person to him. Oedipus does this because he has a critical blind spot: he, like almost all of us, can’t see himself as an evil person. Thus, when characters close to him seem to be holding back information or deliberately sabotaging his investigation, he assumes that they’re covering up for the evil he’s seeking and punishes them. In this, he’s right and he’s wrong. They are covering up…for him, precisely because they don’t see him as evil. They see him as the man who saved their city when it was on the brink. They don’t want him to destroy himself, even though his self-destruction means saving the city once again. Oedipus only becomes conscious of this during the reveal, when he realizes who he really is, and how the Fates had doomed him to do evil in the attempt to avoid doing evil. Through his life, Oedipus reads every ambiguous situation in precisely the wrong way, which leads him to his doom.
The best twists realign the stories they inhabit in ways both surprising and, in retrospect, inevitable. When the twist lands, readers should look back over the story, slap their foreheads and say, “Sure.” They should want to go back and retrace old clues, to find out exactly when they should have realized. They should reflect on why the point of view character didn’t see this coming, and what those biases might suggest about the themes of the story. To be worthy, the twist needs to be the spot at which the true significance of the story’s events finally comes into focus.
Writing exercise: Write two scenes in which a character, sitting on a park bench, overhears a conversation behind him. The conversation itself shouldn’t change, but in the first scene, the character should be a paranoid old man. In the second, a young woman waiting for an important phone call. See how you can use point of view to conceal information from them, or shade their reaction to what is said.