19 August, 2008

More Scenes from the Writing Life

The bizarre dilemmas that come up when writing from the viewpoints of characters from other planets:

1. When you're looking for a synonym for "dark brown," you discover that all of them are utterly useless, as an alien likely won't be thinking in terms of chocolate, coffee, liver, or any other familiar foodstuff. Not unless they've been hanging round Earth far too long.

2. Dodge trying to find a non-exhausted metaphor for "ink blot" by spending ten minutes hunting down Moby's song "Very" online. (Project Playlist doesn't have it anymore, the buggers. How dare they do this to me?!.) Then return to wondering if your aliens would think in terms of ink blots, seeing as how they do in fact have ink...

3. But not sandwiches. A sandwich is a foodstuff most useful to beings with hands and opposable thumbs. Equines, not so much. And "sandwiched between" is an even more exhausted metaphor than "ink blot" anyway.

4. Just when I think I'm going to have to resort to "[that one dude], [dude 2], and [dude 3]," the final three characters, who have been eluding me for over ten fucking years, show up and fit themselves into place like straggling choir members arriving two seconds before the performance begins. The audience will likely think they were there the entire damned time.

5. Spend several moments sounding out the new names and trying to figure out how to spell them so that they a) don't look dorky and b) the reader can hopefully pronounce them. Sigh. Hope for the best and expect the worst: after all, people still can't pronounce Aes Sedai, even though Robert Jordan has the phonetic spellings in the back of every damned book. "A's Seddy" indeed. (It's eyes suh-die, people, come the fuck on.)

I haven't even gone into the minor catastrophe looming when I realized I'd fucked up everybody's position in the line at the beginning of the story, or the difficulty of writing dialogue without using contractions (try making it sound natural, I double-dog dare you), or trying to think like a smartass sentient equine, but you get the picture.

The point is to make the final product look absolutely effortless. That's the beginning and end of writing. Think of it this way: the first draft is an abattoir of a crime scene. The final draft should take a forensic technician with a tank of Luminol to find the blood spatter, and even then, they'd better have to rip up the floorboards to get to it.

I'm going to need a bigger bucket of bleach and a truckload of sponges, but we'll get there. I'll have those fuckers using microscopes.

5 comments:

Atheist Chaplain said...

you do realise that the greatest critic we have of our writing is ourselves :-)
Just a question, are you telling the story from a first person perspective or as a narrative ?
if first person then yes, things like sandwiches and ink blots make sense, if narrative then I would assume that the narrator is talking to beings of like mind.
Just a thought from someone who has trouble writing a shopping list :-)

Leroy Grinchy said...

I can relate. How about spending two years writing a novel from the viewpoint of a mouse?

It gets very, very claustrophobic after a while.

Lirone said...

Sometimes I wish I did anything in a discipline where it was OK - indeed, expected and honoured, to show the effort that goes into producing the result!

I suspect I don't have the physique for weightlifting, or shot-put, but I do envy them the ability to grunt and screw up their faces to show just how hard they're trying.

Instead my three main passions (writing, singing and dancing) all require perfect concealment of the frantic paddling going on underneath the serene swan I must pretend I am!

Good luck with your effort to make the transition to a completely different worldview!

Efrique said...

When you're looking for a synonym for "dark brown," you discover that all of them are utterly useless, as an alien likely won't be thinking in terms of chocolate, coffee, liver, or any other familiar foodstuff. Not unless they've been hanging round Earth far too long.

The same is true for almost all of our non-basic colours.

Orange - fruit. Pink - flower. Sky-blue.

(yeah, even the colour of the sky. Different sun means different relative amounts of various wavelengths; different atmospheric gases, different amount of dust or pollutants, different proportion of cloud cover... different scattering. It may still be bluish, but not necessarily what we would think of as sky-blue)

Dark brown? Take a look at a horse's eye. Generally brown. Many are quite dark.

But not sandwiches. A sandwich is a foodstuff most useful to beings with hands and opposable thumbs. Equines, not so much. And "sandwiched between" is an even more exhausted metaphor than "ink blot" anyway.

Sandwiches are not even obvious to creatures with opposable thumbs. We've been cooking meat for hundreds of thousands of years, and flat bread for at least ten thousand (you don't need leavened bread to make a sandwich). But there's no cuneiform recipe for a BLT. There's no egyptian depictions of a pharoah (damn, how do you spell that?) holding a burger. (It seems the Romans might have done it though. They were lovers of food stalls, and I seem to recall that there was one food available that was basically meat-in-bread that we might call a sandwich)

Equines will have their own tired cliche for one thing closely enclosed by two adjacent things... "clamped in the teeth" perhaps.

Glynis said...

When do you draw the line?

Writing about the 6th century I came under fire for using the word mesmerized, coined and made famous by a guy named Mesmer who practiced a hokum healing power. Mesmerism was largely a 19th century trend. Does this discount the work being used in a period piece?

I have come to believe that I should use what makes my prose sing while respecting the historic period. In the end I think my writing would be pretty limited if I only used vocabulary that was available 1500 years ago.