The 8% Solution

During the past week I drifted a bit, but I also verged on productivity.  Though I did not actually tackle any of the major enterprises I have in mind, I did grease the gears a bit by returning to some older projects with fresh eyes.  I spent a little time revising two short stories, trying to trim them down about 10% in length apiece.  I find that to be pleasurably challenging, since it encourages Bill of the Future to reconsider what Bill of Yore thought was indispensable for the telling of a given tale.  This occasion led to a bite-sized epiphany: while I tend to be fairly efficient when it comes to dialogue and description, I think I’ve come to recognize a penchant for prolixity in narrative accounts of actions and motivation.

In some ways I think both are forgivable, albeit in their own problematic ways.  In one story, for example, a character is surprised awake and, in her haste to leap from bed, tangles herself in her sheets and falls.  It’s by no means an unprecedented act; I’ve done it myself.  Detailing it, however, took me perhaps an eight-line paragraph–that’s more than murderous in the midst of an action-packed scene.  At the time of the first draft I suspect I wanted to emphasize the positions of bodies in space, to account for the consequences of the spill, the injuries and the delays that attended it.  Those cues (in one reckoning of the text, at least) seem fairly important for establishing a time frame in which the activities going on in another room might simultaneously unfold. Fresh reading, however, suggested to me that slowing momentum (and wasting words) at that juncture was the greater sin.  I accordingly lopped off about four lines, making the action move more briskly.

Motivation is, I think, much harder to handle and manage.  While I’m not one to discount perversity–our human readiness to do the unexpected and/or unnecessary in response to some inward, inexplicable prompt–narrative fiction doesn’t create much space for it.  Few things are more maddening in films and books than folks acting on impulses that readers and viewers cannot fathom.  While we might lend mystique to characters in that way, for the most part folks do things for human reasons we can grasp.  Moreover, people tend to want things in very specific ways, for specific reasons, with specific intentions; a generic motive will seldom do.  We despise motivational shorthand, the simplification of desire, but there’s also a point when motive can seem labored, when too many beans have been spilled.  Discovering that balance is hard, at least for me, because it involves a delicate dance of sharing and withholding, of offering readers enough transparency to imagine why a character is doing what she’s doing without bogging the narrative down in a morass of motive forces that require paragraphs or pages to delineate.

With these themes in mind I watched the remake of Evil Dead, which I thought was rather well done from a motivational standpoint.  It includes a few elements I abhor–these days when I see a hysterical driver hop behind the wheel I fast forward to the inevitable crash, for hysterical drivers do not brake, they accelerate and swerve–but the central arc is very well done.  Evil Dead is in many ways enabled by the milieu, with the nearly-archetypal cabin in the woods serving as a staging ground for a gaggle of horrors.  The catch then, from a motivational standpoint, is a simple one:  what would possibly get five fetching folks to said cabin and persuade them to stay there when things get grim?  In 1981, the cabin in question was a spring break retreat, and it was warm and inviting enough to get the visitors to overstay their welcome.  In 2013, the cabin is of the sort that 92% of us would understandably abandon.  Efficiently explaining why these five folks belong to the elect 8% is one of the movie’s chief virtues.

Imagine, if you will, an unbelievably isolated cabin.  There will be no phone service, of course, and you will need a 4×4 with good ground clearance to traverse a waterway a few miles shy of the lot.  I’d venture to guess about 50% of us have already ruled ourselves out of this scenario; outdoorsy seclusion may not be our thing.

Imagine your arrival and attempted entry.  To your surprise, the lock has been forced–someone’s been inside.  Moreover, the place is in awful shape.  It’s not a tidy, rustic retreat by any means, but a filthy, weathered, neglected one.  Since we’ve already established that the 50% we’ve got left are the kind who might be inclined to rough it, let’s estimate 10% attrition, given these revelations.  I’d guess that a few folks who were on the fence at the prospect in the abstract, now faced with clear evidence that the place is neither inviting nor secure, might reasonably opt to bail.

Imagine making it through the first night.  The interior cleaned up quickly, after all, and there’s running water, those interlopers are long gone, and all things seem serviceable.  Except there’s a faint smell troubling one of your guests.  And a visit into the basement reveals its source: a chamber adorned with hanged cats arrayed around a charred support beam.  Oh, and there’s a huge bloodstain at the basement’s entrance covered by the carpet, by the way, and some evidence of occult activity down there, hanged cats notwithstanding.  And on the table at the back there’s something heavy and square, wrapped in plastic bags, bound in barbed wire.  Nothing major.

While the remaining 40% have already earned a lifetime supply of Scooby-Doo sleuthing points for opting to investigate the mysterious, foul stench in the poorly-lit basement with the half-rotten stairs, I think about 4 out of 5 humans would now agree it’s time to go.  The 8% intent on staying would need to have pretty compelling reasons to stick around.

Evil Dead makes use of a clever pretext–a drug intervention–to align its five characters with that highly-motivated 8%.  We have Mia, a heroin addict, her brother, his girlfriend, and two old friends.  The brother, David, harbors a deep guilt for having abandoned Mia as she cared for their dying, deranged mother during her last days; the two friends, Eric and Olivia, have taken part in a prior intervention, which saw Mia relapse well before she was able to dry out. They take great pains to explain to David why they’ll need to stick it out:  Mia has overdosed before, and they don’t think she’ll survive another.  They are thus not only committed to the isolation of the cabin provides but also determined to remain there as long as it takes, no matter how much Mia protests, no matter how odd her withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations seem to be.  That makes for a mighty fine motivational set.

As for Eric’s decision to open up the package bound in barbed wire, ignore all the clear warnings in plain English, and read The Forbidden Incantation that a prior reader has taken great pains to blot out?  That’s not motivated or contextualized quite as well.  Me, I blame the hippity-hop music and the video games.

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Finishing School

On Monday my term as chair of the English Department concluded. On Tuesday I tumbled into the abyss.

Because I am the life-affirming sort, I heartily recommend an occasional abyssal tumble.  It gives you license to use the adjective “abyssal,” which you will enjoy, and it also affords you the opportunity to gaze up at the peaks around you and see where you’d like to climb.  Climbing itself is seldom easy, but it’s always delightful in prospect.

The last several weeks have been relatively hellish from a Wandlessian standpoint.  Such a statement, of course, deserves qualification.  In one or two quarters all things are going exceedingly well; they are going, however, unexpectedly well.  My delight in these things is deep and undiminished, but in the Wandlessian realm–particularly when I am trying to enter a new phase of being and doing–the satisfaction of modest, reasonable expectations often becomes an oppressively significant term.  I need little incremental wins, products of my will and exertions, to pile up in order to build momentum.  To mix the bejillikers out of my climbing metaphor, happy accidents are akin to gusts in the sails, exhilarating as they help you along, but most progress is achieved at the oars, stroke by stroke, picking up speed as you go.  Since reasonable expectations are so often thwarted, however, it feels far more like rowing through dark, choppy waters against adverse winds.  You’re eager to proceed, but it becomes a struggle.

In the writing life, the business is somewhat more complicated still.  I have the good habit of starting fast, the bad habit of raising the blades of the oars and drifting a bit, and the terrible habit of tacking off in new directions whenever a fresh writing prospect fills the sails. Since I’m murdering metaphors today, it’s quite like the statistic for distance traveled posted for departing players when they substitute out in the World Cup–you realize that a given footballer has traveled eight or nine kilometers but hasn’t really gotten anywhere.  This is how one (namely me) ends up with folders full of ideas and half-finished drafts and manuscripts.  Concluding the climb (or the row, as the case may be) involves a sustained effort, progress through those choppy waters even when I’m tired, when it seems my sense of direction has betrayed me, or when I spot an enticing inlet along the way.

For that reason I’m going to conduct an experiment in the weeks ahead.  I’m going to take a little time in the coming week to organize ideas in terms of their readiness, I’m going to create a master list, and then I’m going to tick them off, one by one, not starting on the second project until a complete draft of the first is finished, and not turning to the third until the second is ready.  Is this a revolutionary notion?  Certainly not.  But it will be a very new manner of shaping my days and ways.

With my administrative days behind me, it seems like a fine time to ingrain new habits.  Let’s see where this one takes me.

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Of a Sudden

Because I am none too clever, I find myself overextended in what is allegedly the heart of my summer siesta.  Part of the pileup is explicable:  I’m teaching a class, managing the administrative business that arises at the end of the fiscal year, packing up my office, and taking part in the orientation of those students who’ll arrive in the fall.  Those symptoms that I might be stretching myself a little too thin, however, have only recently emerged.  Were I a wiser man I’d take a long afternoon nap to replenish my existential energy, but since I am not, I’ll try to map the convergence of several lines.

What has struck me in the midst of my recent reading and viewing is the suddenness with which critical narrative developments occur–and the readerly resistance that often attends those shifts.  Though she has known him for the better part of her life, Emma Woodhouse suddenly realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley and that no other should have him; though he has toiled over his creation with fervid devotion, Victor Frankenstein suddenly realizes that the thing he has made is an abomination.  Subsequent readings may persuade us that Austen and Shelley offer sufficient clues for us to anticipate these epiphanies, but the first time through they may well feel like cheats, somehow unrealistic, at once contrived and convenient.

My memory is not long, since I repress most events the moment they occur, but I’m sure I felt the same way the first time I read those books and many others.  While I get to reread as a professional pleasure, I vaguely recall balking at these sudden revolutions in thought and behavior. Modern me, however, is beginning to suspect that such narrative epiphanies may well be authentic representations of the way things work.  I’ve listened to the accounts of newlyweds and the eruption of their strange and sudden loves; I’ve read reports from sunk-cost speculators and their sudden yet belated recognition that it was too late to turn back from some doomed experiment or enterprise; I’ve seen folks maintain the innocence of their allies only to be suddenly stunned by unexpected admissions of guilt.  Without mulling over questions of human nature too expansively, I think it’s fair to say that our partial perspectives (perhaps aided and abetted by a propensity for self-absorption) may sometimes blind us to developments unfolding right before our eyes.   Resistance to those fictions that depict that blindness may speak to a resentment for an inevitable, unwelcome human phenomenon.

I say this, of course, as a critter currently facing a week packed with obligations, as a critter eager to make some preparations for the other side of the administrative finish line, and as a critter who wonders now–when it’s far too late to change his current course–how he got here and how he’s going to conjure up the time to get the needful stuff done, much less the wished-for business.  Alas, a better understanding of the symptoms is not often equivalent to a cure.

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Abiding Silence

This week I’ll take advantage of a jaunty juxtaposition as a prompt for posting.  I’m in the thick of a summer seminar on Gothic literature, and in the coming week we’ll tackle both Frankenstein and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  That’s should make for a fairly frisky collision in terms of technique.

Frankenstein always strikes me as a wiggedy work, technically speaking.  On the one hand we have a framing narrative which, when put into practice, verges on the absurd.  At the outermost layer we have our friend Walton, who wishes to earn fame by making it to the Pole.  Within his story we have the reckoning of Victor Frankenstein, within Victor’s story we get a full biography of his creature, and within the creature’s own story we get the inset tale of the De Lacey clan.  That diegetic trickery is not terribly remarkable in itself, but it coexists with an epistolary device which is commonly used to convey the illusion of truth as well as a textual preoccupation with evidence, proof, and the facts of the matter.  In the trial of Justine Moritz, the trial of Victor, and the corroborating evidence offered to Walton (and a magistrate along the way) to substantiate the account, we see an investment in fact that is complicated (if not compromised) by the open admission of fictionality.  It makes for a festive read for that reason, among many others.

What often bogs me down in Frankenstein, however, are those extensive self-assessments offered by Walton, Frankenstein, and his creature.  Walton really, really wants a friend, and in lamenting the lack he must lay out all the admirable qualities that would warrant such an alliance; Frankenstein goes on for pages and pages about his noble ambitions and the hard hand fortune has dealt him, which yields a sizable quantity of narcissistic prose.  The creature, for his part, has to describe his education at the hands of heartless humans to account for what became of his inherent nobility.   There’s a great deal of philosophical tension in the novel–can the creature be trusted, or is he naturally malign?–but the long disquisitions on thoughts and feelings often remind me of the static quality of the story, how much of it is ultimately told from a ship’s cabin and a sickbed.

Edwin Drood is, for perhaps different reasons, guilty of a similar sin.  Dickens is writing a serial work, of course, so it seems necessary to forgive him some of the prose excesses that might pad his page count. The comic passages (from Deputy, Durdles, Sapsea, Twinkleton and others) yield a great deal of prose without adding much meaning.  I suppose the effect is ultimately a desirable one, as the novel repays careful reading:  a patient reader will learn that Deputy has seen quite a lot in Cloisterham, for instance, or that the drunken Durdles is sufficiently sober to notice peculiarities in John Jasper’s behavior, even though those hints are buried in the surrounding exposition and dialogue.  I expect I’ll hear a few complaints from students on Wednesday that the novel is quite labored, though its density is one of its pleasures.

Despite that apparent excess, however, I realize how effective and evocative Dickensian silences may be.  In the early going, for example, the reader earns great insight into the character of Crisparkle, who realizes he may have been wrong to conceal Neville Landless’s affection for Rosa Bud.  His readiness to give over his earlier silence and openly broach that subject (although the act is never narrated) anchors his virtue and redoubles the reader’s faith in his character–an important bit of anchorage, since his belief in Neville (and the reader’s faith in Crisparkle) is the cornerstone in the case for his innocence.  Dickens uses silence more suggestively in the case of Grewgious, who (in the space of a concise paragraph) conveys his affection for Rosa’s mother–and Rosa herself, it seems, by extension–with a heavy sigh at bedtime.  It’s one of the reader’s first intimations that he has an interior life and underlying motives, motives that complicate the mystery to a meaningful degree.  And of course we have a far more compelling silence at the heart of the novel, when Grewgious relates the broken engagement of Edwin and Rosa to Jasper, who–the novel implies–may have committed a wholly unnecessary murder to achieve his selfish, secret ends. Jasper falls into a fit, and Grewgious watches his collapse impassively.  At the end of Chapter XV he simply stands over Jasper, opening and closing his hands.  Although he says nothing and apparently seeks out the verger to revive Jasper, we know that Grewgious is astute and perceptive enough to process and interpret the fit as indicative, and that silence, too, is therefore revealing.  Of what?  Dickens did not live to tell.

I often struggle to strike a balance in my own writing, as it’s difficult to know when I’ve offered too few hints or when I’ve overexplained some trivial matter.  For that reason I find it especially helpful to see silences represented on the page, and to feel for myself the impact they can have.

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World Enough and Time

As you might have noticed, time has slipped away from me.  Exam week runs from May 5th to the 9th with the usual cavalcade of grading; that stretch is followed by a predictable run of grade grievances (not from my class, thankfully, but as a result of my administrative gig); and that run is in turn followed by a steady succession of life stuff:  that appointment with the optometrist I’ve been putting off, that quick trip to the department store to pick up some summer shirts, and all the et ceterae.  Even a relatively regimented critter can ride off the rails in short order when regularly-scheduled programming must be radically reshuffled.

To the surprise of no one, time and opportunity are perhaps the chief occupational hazards that attend the writing life, or the life one would devote to writing if one could.  When all is going well and predictably, we may fall into pleasing patterns of productivity:  we have the chance to string together the little tics and rituals that set the stage for writing.  Wellness of that nature is generally a state of mind, a matter of perspective; predictability, however, is more often contingent and circumstantial.  Several of my friends recently had children, and their writing lives will be revised as a result; some are new college graduates who are preparing to begin a steady succession of summer weddings, job searches, vacations, and other change-makers; still others (retirees and some looking forward to fall sabbaticals) find themselves facing vast expanses of free time and must reshuffle their days and ways accordingly.  It does not take much to upset those delicate rhythms that characterize our lives.

Alas, I have no useful advice to impart concerning how to budget time.  We’re all prey to countless contingencies, so any advice I could offer would necessarily come with a handful of asterisks.  Nor do I have heartening words of encouragement about revising your life so that you can learn to write merrily in the evening if you are an early bird or in the morning if you are a night owl.  Those shifts in rituals can be slow going, and even the repositioning of a single hour can ripple through a writer’s week.  What I can offer, however, is an article of faith:  progress is progress, no matter how modest it might seem on the surface.  When we are swept up in the business of living, one good line is tantamount to a good day. That’s not to say, of course, that we should set the bar so low.  If I only write one twenty-word sentence per day, that novel of mine will take more than a decade to develop.  But if I can get good mileage out of my more accommodating days and still steal a sentence or three from those days that are booked from breakfast to bedtime?  That, I think, is a special kind of plenty.

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Games of Escalation

Today we have a niblet, one founded in the mental meandering that occurs when one is obliged to tackle a long string of essentially mindless tasks.

Not long ago I “finished” Dark Souls 2, a video game renowned for its difficulty.  (I’ll scare quotify “finish” because the game is designed to be repeated, so players can begin again from the start at a higher level of difficulty but with all the new skills they have acquired.)  The game is really quite lovely in a lot of ways–beautifully drawn, beautifully written, and artfully engineered to murder the dickens out of the player.  At bottom, it may be helpful to think of the game as a series of ambushes, any one of which might end the player’s life.  There are ambushes one can anticipate (one makes transitions through misty doorways, and many of those lead to grander monsters on the far side), but the entire game consists of an array of forces aligned against whoever is holding the joystick.

The “problem” of Dark Souls 2, such as it is, is the scale of differentiation.  The battles with certain pivotal critters are decidedly more epic, with closed arenas that oblige the player to see the conflict through, and those critters usually have more extraordinary capabilities.  They can hurt the player in a wider variety of ways, many of them surprising, and they can (usually) inflict more damage than the other creatures that populate the game world.  However, even the most mundane enemies can kill the player with great efficiency.  There are rats and butterflies that can poison you in a jiff, asylum inmates who hurl themselves at you bodily and explode, and whirling dervishes who can hit you ten times in a row in cramped quarters.  Much of the challenge of the game involves learning the tendencies of your enemies and overcoming them as one discovers their weaknesses, but one reaches a point late in the first go-round (and in subsequent play-throughs) at which there’s not all that much separating a run-of-the-mill opponent with the bossiest of boss monsters.  In one small area, for example, one begins immediately adjacent to a crew of archers (who can kill you in a single volley if you’re incautious), then faces a gauntlet of water giants (who can kill you with one or two punches), then faces a host of exploding folk en route to the boss monster, who’s practically a relief, comparatively speaking.  The overall difficulty tends to level out the specialness of climactic conflict.  Does the player grow in capability to meet these challenges?  Kindasorta, but the general proportions remain extremely lopsided.  One acquires new abilities, better weapons, and better armor in a fairly typical way, but even wearing some of the gnarliest armor, armor reinforced to the greatest extent possible, offers the player little protection.  I became far more efficient on offense in my own play-through, but that gnarly armor (Havel’s set, for those who’ve given the game a go) did not safeguard me from the teeth of giant rats or the slashing dervishes.  The game is really excellent, but that sense of a heightening pitch fades very quickly.

And that, as you might have surmised, is my fictional preoccupation du jour:  escalation.  I think in sustained fictions particularly (from trilogies to ongoing series), the sense that the stakes, tension, and opposition are gradually becoming higher, tighter, and mightier is critical to the reader’s pleasure.  We imagine that arch-nemeses will be formidable, but once that bar is set, the rest of the forces arrayed against our heroes generally need to be scaled downward in some material way.  If the protagonist has already bested a figure as menacing, then the suspense is diminished.  This is essentially a variant form of the idea I mentioned back in early April:  if a protagonist obviously outpowers all her opponents, a reader will not fear for her when she faces her final adversary; if a protagonist has already faced and defeated an enemy of comparable caliber, than the conflict with a similar foe is anticlimactic, perhaps even redundant.  I can think of a few series offhand that ran into this problem:  they offered readers an enormous challenge that was overcome in book two or three, and by book four or book five (perhaps never imagining they would get to write a four or five) the authors could not heighten the pitch without fundamentally changing the terms–they had already buried the needle.

It’s a question I think about often when I’m conniving at a longer prospect–how does one slowly increase the heat so that the the temperature rises appreciably but the pot does not boil over until the last act?  One runs the risk of overplanning, I know, but the dissipation of all that accumulated energy always strikes me as the greater risk to run.

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On Frivolous Fiction

Let us acknowledge that those posts I tag as “writing tips” are also tagged as “occupational hazards” with alarming frequency.  And then let’s move on.

This morning involved a radical break from my regular routine, and that break has shaken up much of my day thus far (and it’s just past 9:30 where I am).  Most of my mornings are at once habitual and ritualistic, the sort of pump-priming most of us do to begin the day, patterns so deeply ingrained that they become existential reflexes.  They help me to free up brainspace to tackle more serious stuff, and I imagine I’m like most folks in that regard.

I’ve tried to turn certain kinds of writing (blogging, email) to much the same purpose.  They act as warm-ups at times, palate cleansers at others.  They get me typing without fretting overmuch about revising on the fly.  The results, of course, are variable:  if I’m trying to pin down an elusive thought, for example, or if I’m answering a message that requires some delicate wording, I can’t simply cruise on through and commit the pixels as liberally or unselfconsciously as I otherwise might.  I’ll get bogged down, and I’m apt to leave the keyboard in much the same way I arrived–I don’t earn the clarity that comes with essentially effortless prose.

It’s for this reason that I’m having increasing doubts about my penchant for what we might call frivolous fiction, the sort of narrative exercises I’ll sometimes do to get the cerebrospinal fluid flowing.  I’ll pen a paragraph or two for a children’s story imagined for my goddaughter, for example, or install one of my peeps in a wiggedy fictional context and see what happens, often with the intention of sending the piece along to the protagonist if it turns out fairly well.  The catch, alas, is that I cannot write such fiction without the same sort of abandon that attends other prose modes.  I’ll find myself reworking lines, adding incidents, and complicating character interactions–all the usual effort goes in to what should really be a lighthearted, lightheaded activity.  (It’s probably telling that I cannot do the same sort of warm-up work with verse at all.  In my little world there’s no such thing as easygoing poetry.)  What ought to be the thoughtless project of 45-90 minutes becomes a far weightier undertaking, and the deliberate work that ought to follow gets postponed.  Moreover, since the projects tend to be purposely tailored for individual readers, they seldom feature material I might try to publish or pilfer for some other project.  They are by no means wasted effort, since all thoughtful practice is good practice, but they don’t build up my portfolio of work in the world.  If I could add “Thanks, Bill!  Also, you’re kind of a weirdo!” notes to my CV I would be one of the more accomplished critters in America, and while those notes are lovely things, one ought to attend to one’s professional intentions from time to time.

And that’s the day’s frivolous writing–reviewed for typos, double-checked for tone and (informal) grammar, authored while sipped coffee and answered a few messages.  Some habits are harder to break than others.

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