17 August, 2008

Scenes From the Fiction Writing Life

People get really interested in the process of storytelling. Where do ideas come from, how did you create characters, etc.

It's not all that fascinating, I'm afraid. Most of it's a seemingly endless stream of frustration, blocks, false starts, recalcitrant words, and sudden revelations of your own appalling ignorance. A writer at work looks like the sort of people stuck glaring at a computer loaded with a Windows operating system that's just decided to take the evening off.

Then things start to frantically fall into place, and the writer feels like a cat caught in a riptide, thrashing at the water with all four limbs, trying valiantly not to drown.

So here's where I'm at with this story: last night, I got clobbered with a profound ethical dilemma that never occurred to me before. If you'd been there to witness, the scene would have looked like this: writer stands on porch in cool night breeze, smiling happily at the stars whilst smoking a cigarette. Writer's entire body suddenly jerks, cigarette nearly flies over the balcony rail, smile absconds, and a stream of obscenities flows. Writer starts to walk into the house with lit cigarette, stops just in time, smokes as fast as possible while leaning down to deposit cigarette in ashtray, and then dives into the house to pound a frantic note on the computer, still cursing, eyes roughly the size of Frisbees. Two hours of profuse typing follow.

Tonight, the inspiration refused to flow. You would have seen the writer eyeballing the night's previous work with the same expression mother-in-laws have when they come for unexpected visits and find the house in slight disarray. Then there's the digging through previous notes, the rising despair, the procrastination as writer pulls up Solitaire and fiddles with just the right music to persuade the Muse to pony up. Slowly, the tension fades as the next scene reluctantly presents itself. Gaiety ensues. The writer goes out for a celebratory smoke, comes back in to write, and then spends a solid hour researching horse colors online because she doesn't have the slightest fucking clue what color the next character is.

Yes, you can be stopped in your tracks in the middle of a story over ridiculous details.

I'm still not sure what color Aisonah is. And it's driving me utterly crazy, because when I write, I need to see. I can't get into the story and write down what's happening if I can't see the details.

There she goes. A flash of rose, a hint of pale blue, dusted over cream. Now I can begin to see her.

Now I have to go write her.


NP said...

I sympathize. I spent about forty-five minutes looking at the color palette in Microsoft Word trying to decide what color the siding on Prasad(a) should be because I can't finish the introduction without it.

Still haven't decided, so that sentence includes "[COLOR]" where the color should be, and I've been working on other sections.

So many people think writing is all Stranger Than Fiction in an empty apartment or Mercy in a little cottage in the woods...poor fools.

Chaos Lee said...

I've been stumped by the spelling of a certain name, how many years had passed between Event A and Event B, whether or not someone left a room with a phone or without it, a color, whether a scene happened on a Thursday or a Friday.

It's weird the things that don't just come automatically, but then other things just pour themselves forward. Writing is the ultimate exercise is chaos and why I love and hate it.

Karen said...

If it makes you all feel better, writing scientific papers isn't any easier. I'm a co-author on a paper we're revising right now, and we have conversations with lots of statements like:

"Yes, that paragraph is correct, but I had to read it three times to make sense of it!"

"You can't say it that way, it directly contradicts Big Important Scientist's last presentation abstract. You don't want to say in print that he's wrong quite so obviously."

"I don't care if it's more 'esthetically pleasing', I am NOT changing that damn diagram again."

"I don't think the data let us draw that conclusion so positively. We need to be more tentative."

"This paragraph is too tentative."

Amazingly enough, we're all still friends.

MalwareBeGone said...

Wouldn't a shot (or 4) of Tequila help with these ethical questions? Better than nicotine?

Blake Stacey said...

At the moment, I'm trying to revise a science-fiction novel and a scientific journal article. I win the angst trophy!!!eleventyone!


Here's a mildly awkward question for the fictionistas hanging out around here: if your characters are human, how do you handle race? I fret about this kind of thing now and again: if my character has a heritage which mixes Algeria, Vietnam and Tamil Nadu, how do I convey what I know she looks like in a concise way without bringing in baggage I don't want? Does being a white kid from the suburbs of North Alabama infect me with a socio-literary equivalent of original sin?

It's weird.

I could write a story about a guy and nobody would blink. I could write about a robot or a talking dog and never feel the need to justify it. It wouldn't bother me for a second to write someone who was gay. But I think about writing someone of a different ethnic background. . . And suddenly I'm a bunny in the headlights.

Karen Ellis

I don't think it's very hard to figure out the ethnicity of each of the characters [in Anansi Boys], and I was very good about identifying white people as white whenever they entered the text. I knew that most of the characters would be Anglo-Caribbean going into the book, so decided that that was the default. It bothers me in fiction going in that white is the default.

Neil Gaiman (who is in truth even cooler than advertised)

Efrique said...

if my character has a heritage which mixes Algeria, Vietnam and Tamil Nadu, how do I convey what I know she looks like in a concise way[...]?


Chaos Lee said...


A writer's first obligation is reportage, I believe. So you shouldn't hesitate to convey details, so long as they are contextually appropriate and actually have a purpose.

How would someone view the person, seeing this unique amalgamation of skin tone, eye shape, facial features. A person appearing African at a glance but speaking with a distinctly Southeast Asian accent? Cheeks and eyes of an Asian, but light eye color? Clive Barker always did a fairly convincing job of conveying non-white people without it coming across as judgemental or critical, he tended to bask in appreciation of difference. It's all about the signficance. (Speaking as the bastard child of multiple ethnicities, it can get weird with us ethnic hybrids.)

Humans notice difference, not sameness, basic pyschology.