Writing

“When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas . . . But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”

—Philip Guston, paraphrasing John Cage

There are stories that seem to write themselves. They come quickly and easily, and I feel as if someone else — the muse — is responsible for them. This happens rarely. I’m not sure these stories are better than the ones I struggle with, where every word needs to be torn out of whatever place holds words and then planted in the text with scraped metaphoric hands.

And there are stories that partly come easily and partly are a fight. I’m not sure I believe in the classic Freudian subconscious, but I used to say I wrote out of my subconscious. I certainly do rely on instinct, feeling, the irrational a lot. Sometimes entire lines or paragraphs float up out of nowhere. Sometimes there is an image or situation that haunts me. It has to go into the story, though I’m not sure why. This can be a difficult way to write, since I don’t have a plot to rely on. I am feeling my way through the story. Don’t ever write a novel this way. I have written four. It’s a hard, slow process. The good part of it is, I can end in unexpected places.

I did plot Ring of Swords; and planning ahead makes a certain kind of complexity possible. My earlier novels are basically picaresque. I set my characters in motion and they travel and have experiences. It’s a simple kind of story. One damn thing after another.

There are a couple of problems with plots. You can reach a point where you know what the plot tells you to do, but it doesn’t seem plausible. This is when writers say their characters are fighting them. The characters don’t want to do what the plot requires. Then you either change the plot, or you try to figure out why the character would do what the plot requires.

The other problem is, a story that is too well plotted may seem lifeless, as if written by a machine. (I will tiptoe past ChatGPT and actual machine writing.) The writer is doing a job, not exploring an idea or situation.

One advantage of genre fiction is, it gives you a plot: the romance, the investigation, the space war… Then you can concentrate on other things, the stuff that floats up out of your mind, or that ideas that interest you. The genre plot will trudge along and bring the story to its end. Some SFF plots are clearly of this kind: the fantasy quest, the saving the kingdom or the world. They will trudge to their preordained end, long after I have stopped reading. Other SFF plots are a lot more quirky and interesting.

I am not sure that Guston is talking about any of this. But the stories that seem to come out of nowhere feel as if I have left the room and the story is typing itself. I wish this would happen more often. I could come in after a walk and find a complete story on the computer, ready to go out.

There was a period in my 20s when I was mostly writing poetry. Then, starting around the time I was 30, I concentrated on fiction. In a lot of ways, I write fiction the way I write lyric poetry: more or less intuitively. Obviously I have characters, and they interest me, but… In my current story two characters are trapped in a sinkhole. This provides a little drama and excitement. But the situation, the image seems important: the dark hole with sheer walls. I’m not sure the situation is plausible, but then neither are the characters. One is a cat that is six feet tall when he stands on his hind legs, as he almost always does. The other is a small dragon. Both are intelligent and talk. The cat wears clothes. What does the sinkhole mean? I have a certain number of caves in my fiction, which must represent something. Fear of falling? The unconscious? The deep, dark, scary basement of reality? As a rule, I don’t over analyze my fiction, for fear it will lose power if I know what I’m doing. So the meaning of the sinkhole will most likely remain unknown…

Stories

I looked up M. John Harrison on the Internet and this led to several reviews, which I cannot now refind. Anyway, one talked about the inability of fiction to accurately portray the real world. (I wish I could find that review.) I was not aware that stories are supposed to accurately portray the real world. For that, we have nonfiction and human experience. What is the function of stories? Entertainment and commentary on the real world. Models that look at certain aspects of reality. I think. I wish I could find that review.

I make up stories as a way of coping with a world that often seems unfair and violent. It is my way of lighting one candle, rather that cursing the dark. Though I also curse the dark.

I also make up stories because I love stories. I made up stories before I could read and write, and told them to my kid brother. It seems to me many (most?) children love stories and make up stories, just as most (all?) kids draw. I am speaking about the culture I know: the US. I can’t speak about other cultures, though stories seem universal. They are funny. They are entertaining. They have morals. They explain the world, rather than portraying it.

Mr. Catt

I have not been keeping up with the posts here. Okay, here is one, lifted from facebook:

Today is a haircut, followed by a visit to a dry cleaners to drop off blankets and a few shirts. Followed by — what?

I could go to a local coffee shop and finish the new Mr. Catt story which is currently scribbled in a notebook in fragments. After that, I will need to input it and revise it. I don’t know how I feel about the story, but it has been fun to write.

Writing it has been slow. Which is fairly typical. I write more slowly than I used to, and I have never been a fast writer. Toward the end of her life Le Guin said she no longer had the energy for writing fiction. I am keeping going, though slowly.

On the plus side, I have written three poems. Le Guin switched to poetry late in life. I think her prose is a lot better. Two of my poems are about grief, since both Patrick and I have lost family members. Gee, that is hard. The third poem is about time travel. I should send that one to Asimov’s.

New Posts

I had to revise my last post twice after posting it, so those who follow me will get three notices of new posts instead of one. I apologize. I wasn’t thinking…

Mr. Catt and Posts

I have not posted anything in a month, so now I am making three posts: on language, on pears and on my writing. I am most of the way through the sequel to “Mr. Catt” and am still uncertain about the story. But that is typical. I will show the story to my two writing groups when I am done, make revisions, then send it out and let editors decide about the story.

Kidding

As far as I know, the phrase “kidding on the square” has gone entirely out of use. But it’s so neat and useful. I was teasing Patrick and also being serious. “Kidding on the square” is a perfect description.

I mentioned this to friends, and they didn’t know the phrase. I found it in early 20th century fiction, mostly crime novels. Maybe pulp SF as well.

Mr. Catt

I am writing a sequel to my Mr. Catt story and have reached the point when I despair of it being any good. That usually happens. I push through the despair and continue writing.

Aside from that project, I have to finish revising two almost done stories. And then move on the assembling two collections, one of Lydia Duluth stories and one of miscellaneous stories. I am trying to set up a schedule for writing. Otherwise I procrastinate.

Toward the end of her life Le Guin said she could no longer write fiction. She lacked the energy. I am trying to avoid getting to that point. Right now, the world looks pretty awful to me. Writing fiction is an escape.

Con Report

Minicon, the local SFF convention, was this past weekend. I am having trouble getting back to con going after the epidemic, which is still with us. So I only spent five hours there on Saturday. I had two panels and a poetry reading.

I moderated one panel — on humor. I wanted to do the panel because I think of my own work as mostly funny, even the stories where people die. Partly this is my Nordic sense of humor. The Icelandic sagas are full of laugh riot death scenes. And partly — it seems to me — both humor and SFF are about surprise. That shock of “I wasn’t expecting that” can happen in humor and in SFF. (There is humor and SFF that relies on meeting expectations, but I am less interested in this.) Anyway, I was asked to moderate and said yes.

As it turned out, I hadn’t done enough prepping. The panel was unfocused. I have given more thought to humor in SFF since. One thing that the panel did not emphasize: the Brits are masters of SFF humor. Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Terry Gilliam — who is actually from Minnesota, but left long ago. We should have mentioned John Sladek, a Midwesterner who spent a lot of time in England. A very funny writer.

The panel also stuck to English language writers. We should have mentioned Stanislaw Lem and Italo Calvino and maybe The Journey to the West, the great Chinese novel which is both fantastic and funny.

And there is more than one kind of humor: parody, satire, slapstick, wit, punning and other forms of wordplay. We didn’t talk about that.

So, not a great panel. Though not a disaster. I figure con panels have a rule of three: one third are okay, one third are good, and one third are disasters.

Then there was a group poetry reading with a tiny audience in a huge room. It was a successor to Lady Poetesses from Hell, which used to draw a good audience. I think changing the name was a mistake. But it is hard to keep the old name when so many of the Lady Poetesses are not with us — passed on, moved out of state and very, very ill. Old age is not fun.

The second panel I was supposed to be on was in the early evening. It was on world building in SF and F. It could have been interesting. But I was feeling tired. So I went home.

 

SFF

This is in response to a question Lyda Morehouse asked: is there less description in contemporary SFF, and if so, does this matter? Is it good or bad?

I wrote:

I just read a fairly recent novelette/novella set on an alien planet and had very little sense of the world being alien. The story may have lost me with the mention of grass, which is a specific kind of Terran plant. Write ‘grasslike’ or ‘groundcover.’ Take 2 lines and describe how it is like/unlike grass. The story isn’t about the alien planet. It’s about the humans. And it was a fast-paced action tale. But I could use a bit more setting. SFF is about the different and strange. We should see and feel the difference and strangeness.

I am trying to remember a story from way back. Humans come to an alien planet where the natives have a regular season of flooding. When this happens people — I remember them as young people — are hung upside down from trees. The humans think this is amazingly cruel and rescue one alien from hanging. The floods come. It turns out that the aliens came two forms: as juveniles, they are mobile and intelligent. As adults, they are sessile and brainless. The person they rescue turns into a brainless adult. If he had remained out of the water, he would have kept his juvenile form. The moral of the story: don’t assume you know what you are doing. I think it’s a Robert Sheckley story. I mention it because it’s really strange, and clearly memorable. I remember it decades later. Also, there are animals on earth — tunicates — which have a life cycle like this. “Despite their simple appearance and very different adult form, their close relationship to the vertebrates is evidenced by the fact that during their mobile larval stage, they possess a notochord or stiffening rod and resemble a tadpole.”

MFAs

These are a couple of quotes I found on Facebook: two different people talking about MFA snobbery.

“This happened to me at Hachette – a marketing manager heard I’d been published and was curious where I got my MFA. I said I didn’t have one, she smirked and said, ‘So you’re  not a real writer actually. Got it.’ I almost fucking killed her on the spot.”

“Had such a strange moment at AWP book fair. A journal editor asked me and my friend if we were MFA students and when we said no, she said, ‘Aw, you’re just writing for the love of it,’ in a clearly condescending tone.”

And this is me:

Snarl. I also do not have an MFA. The guy who led the original MFA program in the US — Iowa — sold the program to rich donors as a way to fight Communism. The rules they used to teach — I don’t know about the current programs — “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell,” are hell on SFF, and they also locked you into white, middle class, mid 20th century, American society. (The chances that you would be in an MFA program if you were a person of color or poor were not great.) (I personally believe that the focus on the psychological problems of the middle class was a way to kill kinds of fiction that talked about class and race and hope for the future.) Bullshit. I’ll take rocket ships and elven warriors every time.

One of the problems with realistic fiction is it often tells me nothing I do not already know. I grew up in a middle class American household. I know what it’s like. Why would I want to read about that life? On the other hand, this is new:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark
Near the Tannhäuser Gates.
All those moments will be lost in time,
Like tears in rain.
Time... to die...

I know that contemporary mainstream fiction is often not realistic. But SFF has a longer track record and more practice with unreality… I also realize that my hostility to ‘literary’ fiction shows my age. It dates from my childhood, when SFF was not respected or popular.