The gift of dynamic readers

Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.

So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.

Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.

I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.

A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.

Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.

It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.

And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.

This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.

Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.

And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.

The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.

And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.

“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.

But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.

Ambition and salt: or, a fatphobia of words

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.

Angela Davis

I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?

I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.

But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.

A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.

When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.

But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.

Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.

But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”

What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.

Review: El-Mohtar & Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War

This book has been on my TBR list for a while. So when I hied myself over to my branch library to renew my card and saw it on the shelf, I checked it out. (Disappointingly, several books I had hoped to put holds on are not in the system. Obviously I’m going to have to put a second string to my bow and sign up for a JoCo account.)

I admit, a big selling point for the book was the fact that it’s small. (Again with the ways in which I am not the reader Author Me is looking for.) I didn’t realize the book was actually a novella; if I wanted to be That Bitch I would check the word count and issue Commentary on how 50k words is not ten thousand words too many to be considered a novella, So There. But eh, who has time for that. Time War is, pretty clearly, a novella; it has no wasteful digressions, no overblown prose, no jags where there ought to be jigs. I read it in the same afternoon, with time left over for a nap.

I gave it the same four stars on Goodreads that I give to other excellent books, but I didn’t write a review of it there because I wasn’t actually sure what I thought about it. And — I still don’t. The back jacket cover is full of blurbs giving a kind of praise I’ve never seen before — I think Gerard Manley Hopkins was name-checked at one point, which you definitely don’t see every day — and none of it was stuff I thought about the book, but I thought it plausible that someone else might think it.

The story, you would think, hits my Enemies Who Love Each Other kink whang in the gold. Not quite: the two time soldiers in this story fall in love as enemies and continue in their duties even after they’ve acknowledged their secret and forbidden love; but it wasn’t quite the specific non-romantic love of enemy for enemy that I hunger for so much. Close, though; as close as things usually get.

I think the book both stands and falls on its thoroughgoing commitment to discorporealized action. Or…dyscorporealized action, in some instances. Like Charles Williams (honestly he’s much more my go-to comparable than GMH for this), the actions these time soldiers take, the letters they write, happen in an almost metaphysical realm, the synapses between thoughts, between beats of the heart. The story is written and lived in interstitial, intercostal spaces; the reveal of the seeker-shadow is a fulfillment rather than a bucking of its trope; for all the main characters tell one another about their physical lives, those lives are conducted at a far remove from anything we experience. Possibly the most anchoring thing in the book is the occasional allusion to memes of our time — I laughed when I encountered the reference to “I’m in ur base killing ur doods.” Do kids these days know that meme?

Trying to get a critical grasp on this story, I noticed that it’s written in tight-third, present tense POV — a perspective tailor-made for this kind of story; or vice versa. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment when I say it’s like fanfiction pieces written by the best practitioners of that perspective. But tight-third present tense perspective became popular among fic writers precisely because it is so handy for invoking this dreamlike sense of immediacy, and — if you have the chops for it — providing the bevels needed for imagistic wordplay and incantatory style.

This stylistic choice is not just popular in the realm of fanfiction, but when you find it out in the wild it’s usually in literary fiction. I suspect that reviewers have a Pavlovian response to encountering this style, which is to tag it as having high literary merit whether it does or not. But that’s not El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s fault. Their book does everything it does in good faith, and in the end I suppose that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

But the thing I liked best about the book, the thing that filled all those resonant spaces in my heart whenever I pick up a story looking for Escape in Tolkien’s sense, was the last line of the acknowledgments section at the back. El-Mohtar and Gladstone clearly mean their book to be an act of resistance, as all real art is in times like these, and the last thing they have to say about it — and the last thing I have to say about it — is this:

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re all still here.

Trajectories

Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.

Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.

However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.

So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.

This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.

But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.

Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.

Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.

At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.

A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.

Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.

Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.

Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.

__

* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Advent calendar wrap-up: The Cold Open

Well, it looks like I fell at the final hurdles when it comes to posting every day for Advent. The weekend saw me holed up at home, writing — a scene sequence for The Lantern Tower chapter six, and then the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday. After that, there wasn’t much that felt urgent enough to put into a blog post, so I let it lie.

Sunday evening I went out for tacos and margaritas with one of my book club friends, who had been doing a great deal to help our mutual friend with household tasks and errands before she moved to hospice. We talked of mortality, of giving care, of the ways love and faith manifest at times like this.

Then I wrote some more, because that’s what there was to do.

This wasn’t one of the weeks where it’s immediately apparent what I’m going to write about for my sermon. Sometimes that happens: sometimes there’s something going on in the world or the country or the life of our community that connects with the readings with a neat little snap, and I ruminate the content and the structure and then finally compose the thing at least 24 hours before I deliver it.

And then sometimes there are occasions when, despite knowing weeks in advance when I’m preaching and what the texts are, I fumble until the very last minute before it’s time to shower and dress and leave for the church. Yet it’s not usually the exegesis or the relevant insights that’s the problem; I get plenty of help in that department, if not from on high then at least from teachers and commentators.

No, the problem is usually the cold open.

Every sermon needs a cold open: an image, a quotation, an anecdote, a narrative, or a concept that sets the tone and theme for what people are about to hear. Without it, frankly, the likelihood of your hearers giving a shit goes down exponentially. Many preachers content themselves with telling a joke and then taking advantage of the indulgent goodwill that follows in its wake; this is a strategy that usually annoys me to listen to, not least because a good many of these jokes are of the kind of gendered humor that only the het couples in the room are likely to enjoy. Not being a member of a het couple, my expectations of any relevance to come drop sharply.

A really good cold open is something you can call back to throughout the sermon; it doesn’t have to be Serious but it ought to be memorable, and be able to make the serious things memorable too. And from the writer’s point of view, it makes articulating those serious things possible. It filters out what isn’t coherent and gives you a thread to pull when you’re working through the rest of the structure.

Until I have a cold open, I can’t start.

The cold open is essential to sermon-writing because a sermon is a short composition that won’t benefit from a complicated structure, and a simple structure falls apart without a driving image. But something like a cold open works for long forms too. A novel’s prologue often functions that way: or the first scene if there isn’t a prologue. Sometimes the author leads off with an epigraph to set the tone. None of these strategies guarantees being good or effective, but the instinct for using them is the same: what one thing is this piece of writing going to be about? Here’s the essential clue.

But at times like this, coming up with a cold open for a sermon, or a first line for a chapter, is easy. It’s mediating the relationship between that writing and the context of daily life that’s hard. It’s trying to say something definite while being caught up in a liminal space.

Which is probably why there’s not a cold open for this post.

So, my best wishes to all for your holiday. Lights shine upon you.

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.

All the news that’s fit to print

Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It’s been rather busy chez moi, as my work has just concluded their fall conference here in town. A lot of rolling out of bed at Oh My God It’s Early, putting on actualfax makeup, and tooling downtown in my nice work clothes in the pre-dawn, then dragging back to trip over the kitty at sundown. It’s a lot of work, but it is fun to see our members at these things. One conference down, one more to go before the year’s end.

Meanwhile, I decided to move on from storyboarding to actual work on the sequel to Ryswyck, which I’m calling The Lantern Tower. I have the first chapter finished and the second chapter started. When I’m working on a project, there’s sort of a breathing rhythm between my efforts to nail down an outline of the plot with lists of scenes and sketches of dialogue, and points at which I have to just start writing to draw down the pressure and provoke more insight. I’ll probably write until I hit a sticking place, let it percolate, and turn back to editing Household Lights, which I hope to get out next spring. It’s not really multitasking; it’s sequence tasking. I loathe multitasking both as a concept and as a requirement: I mean, does anybody really thrive on doing five things at once with equal quality? Don’t tell me if you do.

Anyway, some things about The Lantern Tower. I’ll be introducing two new viewpoint characters and changing POVs on a couple of others. I’ve already got some scenes sketched, and have organized the movements into roughly five short acts. And boy am I glad I siphoned off the opening sequence for Household Lights — that first chapter was a hell of a lot easier to write without dragging that weight.

There’ll be fencing, both literal and metaphorical, court intrigue, spycraft, love, hate, kissing, fightin’ words, secrets, reluctant partnerships, a dash of hurt/comfort, and of course beloved enemies. I wouldn’t tell myself a story without that!

So that’s the state of the state. Now, I must sally forth to get some goodies for the concert my church is hosting. Carry on, as you were, &c.

More thoughts about character

In my last post I had to get my snark on about character as an ideological flashpoint. But there’s a lot more to say about character as a key to good writing, and how one actually goes about forming a fictional character.

Now, I’ve read my share of writing advice, books and articles either by writers I admire or by writers I know little about. Following Lois Bujold on Goodreads recently led me to a blog post by Patricia Wrede, which keyed into something that I’ve long thought about writing character — and that is that character, like any other element of writing, is a gestalt function.

I think writers are too often tempted to talk about characters as if they have the same kind of agency functionally as they do in the plot — or at least as if they should. But I think they’re two different things. In the plot, yes, we want our characters to do things and not always have things being done to them; we want our characters to want things rather than take on the coloring of the situation around them all the time.

But functionally speaking, characters are affected by what surrounds them and who they interact with. As a color changes its perceived hue when framed by red and when framed by blue, any character’s personality is deeply affected by who they’re surrounded with. That’s the way it should be: after all, it’s how we are in real life. It’s one reason I’ve always been frustrated with personality tests. I could test myself out as an INFP, but throw me in a room with a bunch of other INFPs and ask us to choose a place to go out to dinner — and I’ll probably be one of the first people to go OH MY GOD JUST MAKE A DECISION. I tortured myself with the Enneagram one afternoon: “I’m not purely any of these types, and if I were, I wouldn’t interact with such-and-such type like that.”

As Wrede says, we want to discern the pattern, get it settled, and move on, whether testing for personality types or inventing fictional characters. But it’s never that simple and there is no order of operations for putting together a piece of fiction. Most of my stories start with a kernel of a scene, an incomplete interaction between two characters. Developing it involves asking myself questions: how do I justify this situation? Whose presence offstage is exerting influence on it? Who is that person and what would the situation be like if they were actually present? And as I ask more of these questions and begin to answer them, the kernel situation begins to change in its turn. I realize that no amount of world-manipulation will justify this or that aspect; or I decide that what I want out of the scene has mutated; or, inevitably, the character I invented for the purposes of the situation is not going to cooperate with my plans for them.

That’s always a gratifying moment. When a character begins to resist what I want to do to them and starts taking their cue from the situation I’ve developed them in, that’s when I know that I haven’t just constructed a lifeless figure. O mortal, prophesy to the breath. And then the breath prophesies back.

All the same, technical decisions do need to be made. A character of any significance in a story needs to have a trajectory of some kind. The situation isn’t staying the same; they shouldn’t either. After all, they’re going to be part of any reason the situation changes. A character is strong and unassailable: what kind of thing would make them not so? A character is inclined to hide: what would it take to force them out of avoidance mode? A character is a caretaker personality: what about this situation would complicate and mature their sense of compassion? Say all three of these characters are in the situation together: how would the situation change depending on which of them moves first? Do I like that, or would I like it better if another character is the one to move first?

I was talking with Erica about an edit she wanted to make to her current manuscript, and we noted that depending on where the new event falls in the existing series of events, it’s going to change certain scenes where particular characters interact; it would make those scenes about something else. Could be interesting, she remarked; but do I want to sacrifice the positive things in the scenes as they exist for that? For the time that these changes are contemplated, the story is a Schrodinger’s box, with all possible scenarios coexisting until the decision collapses them. Rather apropos for a time-travel story, but it works for other things too.

For me, that’s what it means to say that character is plot. In the gestalt that is a developing story, characters push and are pushed, they pull and are pulled. The “realer” they are, the more agile they will be in the situation, the more tensile. It’s not just that a character needs to act: it’s that they need to embody a justifiable response to the situation in which they find themselves. That’s an embodiment that transcends type, as we transcend the findings of a personality test.

From there, when it gets to the point of putting words on a page, it becomes a series of decisions about how to introduce, describe, and employ the perspective of the characters I’ve developed. Would this scene say the right thing about a character if it is written from their perspective, or should I use a different POV character to show what they’re doing/feeling? Do I want to play this trope to the hilt or push back on it? How much of the character’s inner thoughts should imbue the narrative of this scene?

And then there are the foundational scenes, scenes whose dialogue I’ve worked out almost from the beginning; when it comes time to actually write them down, it’s a perilous and exhilarating moment. Does it feel as right as it did in my head? We shall see.

And then there’s the fun of talking about one’s characters with beta readers. Post-structuralists be damned, it’s fun to discuss our characters as if they were real people. I’ll jump on any excuse. And I suppose that’s what I felt the need to add to my snarky blog of the other day. Characters, almost more than any other element of the art, make writing fun. And the more mimetic power you have and use, the funner it is.

And that, as Edith Ann says, is the truth.