Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Thursday, 24 January 2002

I'm not a speculative fiction snob. Some people complain if a story that doesn't have a speculative element turns up in a genre publication. I don't.

In fact, I especially appreciate the particular kind of story that has an sf sensibility, but where the speculative element is absent or just barely there. I would put Cryptonomicon and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay into this category.

Speculative elements aren't ends in themselves, they're tools to help us tell a story that's hard to tell without them.

One story that we read at Clarion (some people commented on this aspect of it during critique and the author explained afterwards) was deliberately written to fall right on the border between spec fiction and literary fiction. (I think the author was writing it for a class where speculative fiction was discouraged, but I may be making that up.) In any case, the story hit the border perfectly. Read in the Clarion class (or in a genre magazine) the reader would accept the speculative element and read the story one way. Read in a literary magazine, the reader would view the same story elements as a character's imagination (or hallucination) and view it as a metaphor. It worked both ways.

I'm thinking of doing something like that. My stories tend to be full of sf-ish stuff. I think soon I'll do something that thins that part down. Almost (but not quite) so much, that an sf snob would sniff at it with upturned nose and say, "It lacks a speculative element." Just enough that someone finding it in a non-genre setting would read past the sf stuff and nearly miss it.

I wouldn't want to do it every time, but I think it'll be fun.

Pat Murphy showed us a really powerful technique for analyzing stories during her week at Clarion. She broke the story down into scenes and then described what purpose the scene served in the story. This scene introduces the character and establishes the problem, the next scene shows why the most obvious solution won't work, the scene after raises the stakes, this other scene closes off an escape route, and so on.

One thing I've been doing since then (in a kind of vague and unfocused way) is analyzing stories that I like and looking at how the scenes are structured.

It strikes me as a possibly useful exercise (kind of like an art student copying a masterpiece) to write a story that closely follows the structure of another great story. I don't know if I'll do that, but I definitely will do some more of this sort of analysis, and do it in a less vague, more focused way. I was shown how powerful a tool it is for analyzing a broken story, and I've discovered for myself how instructive it is to analyze an excellent story this way. I think it might be even more instructive to do it more methodically.

I've got a file of ideas for stories I want to write. But, for some reason, I don't want to look in that file and pull out an idea or three. Neither do I have some idea or another clamoring for me to write it. Instead, I have this urge to generate some new ideas, especially character ideas.

James Patrick Kelly talked about the "lifecycle of a story" at Clarion. My notes from that day's class are in the journal entry I wrote for June 6th of last year. Among other things, he talked about gathering ideas and characters for use in future stories. That's what I want to do. I've dealt with this urge in the past by sitting down and generating five or ten ideas--however many it took until I felt like I'd accomplished something. I may do that again. But what I feel like doing this time is generate characters.

In my conference with Jim he told me that I need to put more of myself into my stories. I've thought about it since then and have come to understand what he was saying better over time

I grasped half of what he was trying to tell me right away. In critiques people repeatedly complained that my character's reactions were too mild. (My characters were described as emotionless and compared to robots, and it was suggested that maybe one was taking Prozac.)

Now, I knew that my character were having emotional reactions. So, half of the solution was to do a better job of representing those for the reader. I mentioned wanting to work on that to Geoff Landis and Mary Turzillo in the conference I had with them, and they recommended Orson Scott Card's book Character's and Viewpoint.

I'm reading that book right now. It's a really good book and I'm getting good stuff out of it. I'll certainly read the rest of it and benefit from it. But it's really only half of what I need.

I figured out more recently that that what I need to do is to write about characters who care passionately about things. It is possible to just create out of whole cloth a character who cares passionately about whatever it is the story is about. That's a perfectly valid technique, but it's limited. Of course, it's just as limited to begin with a character, figure out what that character cares about, and then write a story about that.

What Jim was trying to tell me was that I need to start with what I care about. Then, when I create characters who care about that same thing, I'll be working from the deepest, richest parts of my own experience.

So, I'm off to think about things I care deeply about and about characters and sf ideas that touch on those things.

No writing today (except for this journal entry, which does go on a bit). The main reason is that our "Buffy" DVDs arrived today, so we were compelled to watch some Buffy. If we ration ourselves to two episodes an evening, they'll last almost a week. Of course, we probably won't manage that over the weekend.


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