Pantsing and enjoying the journey

Ross pointed this out:

When you aren’t rushing to a destination, the journey becomes the focus.

To which I could only say: Yes.

The discussion was about Haruki Murakami, who maintained in an interview that he wrote without a plan, not knowing where he was going. This is sometimes called pantsing (I guess after seat-of-the-pants).

But even pantsers have resources. When you start, you know some things.

And along the way you’ve digested a lot of stories (probably), absorbed a lot of notions about how stories work (probably), and so can rely (more or less) on what you will at that point probably call your “instincts”* to — on the one hand — provide you with good stuff and — on the other hand — keep you (more or less) away from the ocean of crapulousness you don’t want to enter.

*Not really instincts at all, but rather the accumulated grasp, understanding, comprehension and adeptness with all of this kind of stuff in the most generalized and at the same time most specific sense.

So clearly it’s not just “seat of the pants” but rather seat of the pants plus everything contained in the pants and also by the way all the other body parts above. Your complete Writing Self is engaged. Or is yearned for, depending.

I had read it before, but in response to this discussion (thanks, Ross), pulled up 1Q84 on my device and began reading it again. It seems to me Murakami allows himself wide latitude if for no other reason than it’s more fun to write that way, and if he’s having a good time, chances are the reader will have a good time too.

And it’s educational and fun to watch him solve some of the problems he raises for himself. For example (and this example is moderately X-rated, so if you’re of a tender disposition stop right here), in Chapter 5 of 1Q84 Murakami has one of his principal characters, Aomame, go to the cocktail lounge of a high-end hotel in order to pick up a guy and have sex. This character (spoilers ahead, so you might want to stop right here), an attractive young woman, has just assassinated an evil businessman, and she wants to blow off some steam and relax by having sex with a stranger. Seated at the bar, Aomame has a few drinks and eventually the right sort of guy sits down a couple stools away. They strike up a conversation. Everything up to now is the sort of thing that’s in most writer’s tool box. It’s work to write it, but not difficult work, just an application of craft. But now Murakami faces the problem of getting Aomame what she wants — sex. How to raise the subject? At this point the reader understands that Aomame wants to have sex and is sympathetic so there’s no need to go into that. The writer’s difficulty is that the situation is so susceptible to a hackneyed or cheesy way of handling it. How to get the sex thing going in a way the reader hasn’t often encountered in fiction, in a way that’s fresh and entertaining and different? That’s the problem. Here’s how Murakami handles it:

The man talked about sailboats. He moored his small sailboat in the Nishinomiya yacht harbor, he said. He took it out to the ocean on holidays and weekends. He spoke passionately of how wonderful it was to feel the wind as you sailed alone on the sea. Aomame didn’t want to hear about any damned sailboats. Better for him to talk about the history of ball bearings or the distribution of mineral resources in Ukraine. She glanced at her watch and said, “Look, it’s getting late. Can I just ask you something straight out?”

“Sure,” he replied.”

“It’s, uh, rather personal.”

“I’ll answer if I can.”

“Do you have a decent-sized cock? Is it on the big side?”

So that’s it, uh, a fun way to introduce a new topic.

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Writing “Nikki this Hollywood Life”

Nikki, This Hollywood Life

This is a guest post by Vanessa Gordot, who’s short story “Nikki this Hollywood Life” is available on Amazon here. Her bio appears at the end.

When I began this story I started with the idea of writing  a little exercise using a technique I’d never really explored: the interior monologue, or “internalization” as it’s sometimes called. I had a fragment that I’d written a long time ago, something that had a moment:

The sun was almost down, a swath of neon pink sunset splashed across the western horizon. The tide had turned and the waves were small, little more than a gentle wash that rolled softly up the beach then expired with a sigh.

As she watched, the street lights came on and were reflected from the wet sand where the waves receded. Someone had a window open, their stereo turned up. The cadences of a Mozart concerto floated out upon the evening air, seeming to settle all about her, like a benediction.

I thought I’d try to use the internal monologue because in following my idle curiosity I’d read a couple Daphne du Maurier novels, and in one of them, internal monologue was almost the whole book. The other interesting thing about how DdM did it, and something I simply copied altogether when I wrote this story, thinking it was a good idea, is to simply have the main character say, through the internal monologue, what the problem is. Why mess around, try and be subtle? Just have her come out and say it.

Go ahead, read Frenchman’s Creek for yourself and see how she does it.

Now, I think this is important: the lovely part of the technique is that lodges the story question right in the reader’s mind, directly from the character to the reader; here’s how it is for me, the character says, and that’s it.

The phrase “story question” might bother you. That kind of nomenclature used to bother me, too. It sounds so cold and manipulative, so artificial and far from what I want my stories to sound like and feel like. I certainly don’t want my reader to feel like she’s being jerked around like a puppet on a string or pushed this way or that way. But it doesn’t bother me anymore; now it feels comfortable. What’s more, now I know in an empirical two-plus-two way what’s going on when I get to the story question, and I think I’m in a better position to mess with it and get it to do the job that, within the context of the story, needs doing. It’s easier and surer to have a bit of empirical knowledge, to think “this is the way they say it needs to work” rather than to rely entirely on your instincts and your feel.

The phrase “story question” is a little misleading, though. The writer doesn’t actually ask a question. What she does is have the main character make a statement or think a thought, and this thought lodges the question in the reader to be worried about. For Nikki, it happens when she thinks:

From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like anymore the person she had become.

I added a couple sentences to try an imply to the reader that if she continued to feel this way, she might very well kill herself. That’s what I wanted the reader worried about. Now (hopefully) I’ve got the reader rooting for this girl, hoping she pulls out of this nosedive.

I think one of the key things about putting the story question into internal monologue is that it is totally bound up with how the character feels about herself. However the character feels, that’s how the reader is going to feel her feeling, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously catch on to other stuff, she still receives the force of the implication.

The implication.

I think that’s so important. That’s what so much of fiction writing is about: putting the implication into the readers sub-mind, that level just a shade below conscious here-and-now.

Is there such a thing, am I making all this up?

Ever pass someone on the street (it happens in Manhattan), catch their eyes and get a creepy feeling, know somehow that things were not right with them, know this without really stopping to consider it? What you saw in that person’s eyes went into what I call your sub-mind. The person behind you, with a little more access to their sub-mind, or perhaps with less to worry about or less distracted might think, that guy is a raging psychopath. That’s how I think the sub-mind works, and that’s where I think a lot of fiction creates its effect. (I recently read an article in the New Yorker that talked about mirror neurons in the brain and it seems to me that’s the mechanism that makes fiction work. Same thing, more scientific.)

Once I got the story question in, I had an idea of where I wanted to get to. In the back of my mind was the core of what takes place at the Ritz Carlton. I had this line of dialogue that I’d heard oh, a long time ago. A friend of mine had told me about a remark made by an actress he knew. She said: “I sucked his cock and I still didn’t get the part.” It’s always seemed to me to be kind of an iconic line, and I’ve always wanted to find a place for it.

Another actress, from the same time in my life, had uttered the line, “Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?” That’s so good, it’s something I could never make up. She was a very tough character actress, and she said the line the day after a guy had broken into her apartment in Hollywood and raped her doggie style. Yes, she was pretty damn tough.

So once I got the story question in, I was thinking that’s where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get there, or if I did get there, I had no idea how in the world I’d write it.

I felt really stuck. What do I do now? I knew I wanted to get to the Ritz Carlton scene and I had an idea of the general shape it would take (they have drinks, they go up to his room, etc.). But I didn’t want to start out they meet they order drinks they sit down they chit chat, blah blah blah. It was all a vague blur to me, a lot of non-dramatic folderol that isn’t going to be very interesting. It’s all stereotyped and clichéd.

I had just advised a writing friend to cut out a bunch of stuff and start the scene as deeply into it as possible. That thought came back to me: why not start the scene way deep into it? Hell, I said to myself, I’ll just start this scene as deeply into it as humanly possible! So I started it with the only clear image I had in my mind: the hotel room door closing behind her as she leaves the room and the scene is over. I think it’s quite amusing in a bizarre, writerly way, to start a scene “deep in” with the last thing that happens when the scene ends. You can’t start any further in than that.

And yet it works. As soon as I closed the door behind her, since I was in internal monologue, I had to write her reaction to the scene she’d just been involved in (though, of course, I didn’t know at that point in any detail what had happened in the scene because I hadn’t worked it out or written it yet). But I knew she wasn’t going to feel good during the scene itself, so I went for the opposite: I made her feel a sense of half-assed achievement after the hotel room door closes.

And it makes logical sense. What do you say when you leave the dentist’s office after having a tooth pulled? You say hell, that wasn’t so bad. You say that because the anticipation of having a tooth pulled is often worse than actually going through it with a hefty dose of Novocain, and you say it because the Novocain hasn’t worn off yet.

At this point I should mention that my first inclination in writing something is a tendency to do the opposite. The opposite of where the characters are, the opposite of what the reader expects. So if the character is happy at the beginning (Oedipus is crowned king) he will be unhappy at the end (he finds out he’s been sleeping with his mom and gets his eyes poked out). Why do the opposite? It makes it interesting. Cast against type: make the heroine morally challenged. It’s more fun that way. I don’t know what you need for a reason, but that does it for me.

Once I got the door closed and her reacting, the rest was easy: Her internal monologue giving an overview of what happened, all from her tight personal point of view. It’s easy because she gets to characterize things and to give the highlights. It’s an announcer’s play by play. All I had to do was watch the pace, stay just ahead of the reader and pay attention to the sentence variety.

It does contain my most favorite line from the story:

She washed her face where her eyes had watered,

That’s it, no embellishment necessary. I like to think the reader winces.

The next scene transition, from the phone call and the reaction back to sitting there thinking about how she doesn’t like herself anymore, that was easy. You can take your character as far away as you want, in space or time, and when you bring her back, all you have to do is have her feel the same as she felt before, and you’re home free. Once again, it’s nice to know there’s a technique for this and you don’t really have to figure anything out; follow the dotted lines.

The dialogue between the two of them was fun to write. I love that stuff; I wish I’d been writing movies back in the 30s and 40s, I would have loved it I’m such a romantic fool.

The really good thing about having the clean-cut guy show up when he does is that it is a surprise to the reader when it happens, and then it clicks in as inevitable. Granted, it’s not a big surprise; it’s just a small one. It also helps keep the story tight; the character is already there in the beginning, so it’s “oh, yeah, of course, he likes her, she left her purse . . .”

The tone of the story changes so much from where her feelings are at and then to her transition into being an actress that I’m still not entirely sure I’m finished with that. I’ve done some work on it.

The ending was hard. Well, some of it was easy, but I got the first part of it, and thought I was at the ending with her happy. But just a plain old happy ending didn’t get it for me; I wanted it to be ambiguous, uncertain, and then, going back and forth with the writer Patricia DeLois, I hit on the idea that she snaps out of actress mode back into the reality of what she’s doing. So I thought I’d change the physical setting (the turn into the side street) to give a setting and tonal change to provide a clue to her change in perspective. It’s not great but it’s the best I could do. As Picasso once said, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get the idea across.

I did that and then, in a later version, the turn into the side street is no longer there. The story was basically over.

Let me mention one other thing. Writers use the “cut” change of scene device. This is double space, a couple asterisks, double space, change of scene. I wanted to do this story without that device, which is, if you think about it, maybe over-used. So I wrote transitions that don’t do that.

I did take wrong turns during the writing. I think the major one was I gave Nikki a roommate, and the day after the Ritz scene Nikki tells her and they talk. Then, I don’t know, I guess God reached down and tapped me on the shoulder and told me I didn’t need it. No, actually the roommate turned into a very strong character and the whole story started to go off into another direction. So the roomy came out.

That’s more or less how the story came about. Roughly.

About Vanessa Gordot

Born in Paris, I speak French, English and Russian because I was a schoolgirl in Moscow where I lived for several years while accompanying my parents who were attached to a diplomatic mission. Both of my parents died in a tragic accident in 1996, when a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76, collided in mid-air near New Delhi, India with a Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747, resulting in the loss of all 349 lives. The accident was ruled pilot error, with the Ilyushin aircraft failing to follow air-traffic controller instructions.

As a writer I have achieved nothing,  for I am as they say a complete beginning person. So I have everything to learn and nothing to lose except perhaps some innocence. And isn’t having innocence always the prelude to becoming more worldly? I should like to learn to write about some of the things I have seen happen to others and experienced myself, but making them into stories others can read and hopefully enjoy. All this sounds stupid to me now as I put it down, but I shall leave it as it is, for it is a true expression of some part of me that seems to want to go out into the world.

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The Most Important Thing

The most important thing you have to do with the opening of your story is bring it to life.

Make it go zing.

If that doesn’t resonate with you, then maybe so far you haven’t managed to do it. When you do, you’ll know.

There’s no rules for doing it, other than perhaps The Rule of Art, which is of absolutely no help at all. The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. (I made that up.)

I have a theory that you can make any sentence seem profound by writing the name of a dead philosopher at the end of it. —Plato

[Got that one online.]

The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. —Convivius The Uncertain

Even when you follow perfectly the Rule of Art, there are those who won’t like it. This doesn’t matter. Getting good grades from readers at an online writers’ site might feel good, but in reality it’s a meaningless exercise, because those readers are (by and large) neither successful agents nor active publishers. To put it another way, they aren’t buyers. They don’t write checks.

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So You Think You Want Rules

There’s nothing wrong with a piece of fiction so long as it works for the reader. That is the gold standard for fiction. I present as my evidence “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, which appeared in The New Yorker. It’s written as if it were a government operations manual more or less in the form of 140 character tweets. And it’s pretty ground-breaking and brilliant. Of course, as with everything, not everyone thinks so. But that’s true for all matters of opinion, isn’t it? I would also point to contemporary sitcom TV, where the old conventions of pov and the fourth wall have largely been dispensed with.

Do you think Samuel Beckett’s agent read Waiting for Godot and then asked for a rewrite, telling Beckett the characters keep forgetting what the other guy just said and repeat themselves too much?

IMHO there are a lot of things about writing fiction that are very good ideas. There are guidelines and there are techniques that are very much worth knowing. There are conventions that are often found in genre fiction. These things aren’t secrets, but one does need to go to some effort to seek them out and then figure out to apply them. This is stuff worth knowing. They generally aren’t taught in English lit courses. And they weren’t taught at all in the “creative writing” course I took in college.

Most people figuring out how to write fiction are accomplished readers. They read so easily that what they read seems (if they read good stuff) effortless. Naturally this leads to the next logical thought: how hard can it be to write this stuff that’s so easy to read? So they sign up at an online writing site and start asking questions. Which is perfectly fine so far as it goes. But you’re not going to get a grounding in the guidelines, techniques and conventions of creating fiction, and especially key questions like “why do readers read fiction?” just by asking the odd question here or there. Unless you happen to hit on the question “Why do readers read fiction?” and stumble across some people with good answers.

IMHO a writer can learn a lot more about these things from actually trying stuff out on the page, exactly the way Jane Austen did than from asking a question here or there. I think this is so because the writer is probably going to have to write a million words before she has a lot of facility with this stuff, so she might as well get busy.

But that’s just me and how I think about this stuff. I’m certainly open to better ideas.

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When you ask it this way: “Which description is best?” you ask a meaningless question. Or one that anyone may answer with any sort of opinion. Unlikely that this will be helpful unless you’re goal is  to take a poll and not try to figure out how description best serves fiction.

Maybe ask rather “What do you want a description to do?”

One notion with fiction is to tell the story by causing the reader to picture things in his or her mind as if a movie of the story were taking place.

If you think of it this way, then one of the ideas of how to write prose is to make it “transparent,” so that the reader doesn’t really notice the words flowing past—the words don’t interfere with, confuse or slow down the movie-making process taking place in the reader’s mind.

A description can still be vivid, such as

guitar notes struck the air like silver dimes.

Which is from that classic of imagery and metaphor, Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron’s all but forgotten first novel.

A line like that is certainly striking, but its effect on the reader’s mind is why it is so good, taking something that’s auditory and making it visual as well. Is that what effective imagery always does or only sometimes does? Just asking.

A good thing to read on the subject of how to describe stuff in fiction is Stephen King’s essay Imagery and the Third Eye, Google it.

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Your Opening and the Great Unwashed

Instead of looking at this opening or that opening, why not start by defining the basic problem: How to open a crime story that’s going to include some kind of crime-solving person (a detective probably)?

There are two basic choices: a) the way it’s usually done or b) something different.

Robert B. Parker always does a. His detective is amused and amusing, laconic, ironic, insightful and easy to be with for the length of a novel. The writing is minimalist, what David Mamet might call “uninflected.”

The woman who came into my office on a bright January day was a knockout. Her hair had blond highlights and her fawn-colored suit appeared to have been hand-sewn by Michael Kors. She took off some sort of fur-lined cape and tossed it over the arm of my couch, and came over and sat down in one of my client chairs. She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited. The light coming in my window was especially bright this morning, enhanced by the light snowfall that had collected overnight. She didn’t seem dangerous. I remained calm.

Is there a simpler way to say “She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited.”? Does the author give the slightest damn what any literary maven may or may not think of his style? Is he interested in doing anything other than telling the story in an entertaining way?

And the ultimate test: does the reader want to know what happens next?

Note that although the narrator is quite taken with the knockout-ness of the woman, yet the description of her is sparse. Parker knows that if you say “knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell” the reader will fill in the rest in his or her own mind.

Another point: who is more likely to have the sort of problem that piques the typical reader’s interest, that sounds like the most entertaining: a) an old woman, her coat wrapped around her like a shroud, clutching a rosary or b) knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell? Hint: How many newsstand copies does People Magazine sell each week and who are the people that People Magazine is all about? Does this make you consider your personal opinion of people who like People Magazine? Why buys the most genre crime fiction, People Magazine readers or The New York Times Review of Books readers? I don’t know the answer, but I’m willing to guess. Hint: the NYTR has a circulation of 135,000 and People a circulation of 3.5 million.

If you’re going to write a villanelle, you must write a 19-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

Now, you can write any damn thing you please, but if it don’t follow that form, it’s not a villanelle (or not a correct villanelle).

If you’re going to write a crime story, make it entertaining. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not a good genre story. If the reader reads the first couple paragraphs and does not find them entertaining, the chances are not good the reader will be motivated to spend $9.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 in order to be allowed to continue to read. I’m sorry about this, but it’s not my fault. It’s the crazy upside down world you’ve chosen to inhabit. I agree, you deserve better and more, but that’s the way it is.

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Conflict: Anticipation Mingled with Uncertainty

Conflict Big and Small. My 2¢.

What anyone can know is limited by one’s ability to speak about it (think about it). I know the same vocabulary everyone knows surrounding stories. This is mainly the vocabulary we learn in literature classes, supplemented by with we’ve picked up in blogs, books and sites like this.

My concern is that when the terminology becomes jargon or formula, then it can turn into misdirection rather than helpful guidelines.

Should a writer simply be encouraged to put “conflict” (whatever that means) into her wip? That might be (note the careful modifier) misdirection.

The goal of fiction is almost always to cause the reader to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty, or perhaps curiosity, suspense and apprehension. The way to do this is to put the MC into a conflicted situation. I think it’s important to keep in mind the goal is not “put in conflict” but rather make the reader feel the way you want her to feel.

The technique is generally and almost always to put the MC into a situation where the outcome is in doubt, often a predicament.

Opening of a current Amazon bestseller, The Last Man, Vince Flynn:

The four dead men were lined up on the living room floor of the safe house. Mitch Rapp started with the one on the left . . . (etc. description of the four, and then at the end of the first para): There was nothing about this mess to give Rapp any assurance that things would be fine, but this last little twist cracked open the door on something he did not want to consider.

The novel is typical genre, of course, distracting froth for those who like this sort of thing. But the writer has technique. Something he did not want to consider. The MC is in a conflicted situation. The MC is conflicted and the reader is invited to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

How much has the technique of a. mingled with u. has changed over the years?

The man in the powder-blue suit—which wasn’t powder-blue under the lights of the Club Bolivar—was tall, with wide-set gray eyes, a thin nose, a jaw of stone. He had a rather sensitive mouth. His hair was crisp and black, ever so faintly touched with gray, as by an almost diffident hand. His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past. His name happened to be Mallory.

He held a cigarette between the strong, precise fingers of one hand. He put the other hand flat on the white tablecloth, and said:

“The letters will cost you ten grand, Miss Farr. That’s not too much.”

That’s a Raymond Chandler in a story Blackmailers Don’t Shoot copyright 1933, originally in Black Mask magazine.

What’s the conflict, i.e., what causes the reader to feel a. mingled with u.? The a. is we are in for a fun ride: jaw of stone, sensitive mouth; clothes as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past; the letters ten grand, then the twist—that’s not too much. The u. is in the disparate elements, how they will weave together to provide us with a satisfying result. We’re confident we’re going to get a satisfying result because of the terrific originality of that first para, the author letting it all hang out, not holding back, saying yeah, it’s a formula yarn with a formula detective, but it’s going to have stuff in it like an almost diffident hand and if you don’t like it, screw off, I’m not explaining anything. The writing has an absolute feeling of commitment and confidence. It speaks directly to something we are subliminally looking for, letting us know we’re in the hands of an author we can trust. Mallory has inner conflicts: jaw vs. mouth, and conflict is also projected onto Miss Farr, ten grand for the letters, or else.

Raymond Chandler understood perfectly what he was doing, creating a. mingled with u. There’s a quote I think is by him (Ross probably knows it) saying that a reader will read a good detective story even if the last chapter is missing. The point being that everything along the way keeps the reader feeling a. mingled with u. and that’s what the reader wants to feel, that’s what the reader is reading for.

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