Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movies, Images, Words, Files, Journals, Speech, Poems

Movies are easier than books. Images are evocative in montage because viewers tend to make stories of them. Movies are interactive.

Words are speech and render the listener more passive, less apt to do the work of making a story of them.

Files and journals are palimpsests to be excavated like archaeological sites and sifted for their treasures.

Poems are flowering vines of thought.

It Is Enough

Took a whole work day, due to a headache, to produce 4.5 finished pages of a novel. At least they came alive for me. In patterning this novel I'm sifting details to a greater degree, to keep it concise. Places arise in scenes where entire chapters could be inserted and I have to decide whether the plot's pace can take such an expansion. Digressions cost momentum.

It's about a third finished, this novel. I thought I'd have it done by October 2008. I used to do 100,000 words in 3 months. Here we are 3 months down the line from the projected end run and I'm only now reaching the 30,000-ish page mark. What I have is good, at least.

Then there is another novel I'm working on, an erotic novel. It's coming along, too, but the plot has taken charge. Needing to wedge more sex into an erotic plot is not a good sign. A real novel arose, is the trouble.

The important thing here is the fact that a publisher is waiting for it. I can't let it slide into mainstream. I'm using a fountain pen to write it, having wanted to slow down and think more, but now I'm wondering if that has worked to the detriment of erotica's conventions. Perhaps less thought would help; I might switch to keyboard to gain speed again. Or I may tag-team, switching from novel to novel and from pen to keyboard and back.

If you wonder how much changes when fiction moves from pen to computer, from journal to file, from page to electron -- when a second and subsequent draft goes down, in other words -- the answer is probably less than you'd think, but to more effect and purpose than you'd think. What is changed is important to deepen texture and character, or to highlight plot points or themes.

First draft is spinning the yarn, second and subsequent drafts weave the cloth and tailor the clothes. In an oral tradition, the trick is repetition, honing the effects and tones until the story comes alive and can survive on its own.

That s rarer than you'd think. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one example. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber is another. O. Henry's stories "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief" have been copied innumerable times. There is The Odyssey by Homer, obviously, and many ancient myths from many traditions. Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood are all ancient tales. Disney understood what his successors so obviously do not about resonating old tales in new ways.

Joseph Campbell is one of the keys to grasping all this stuff about stories and resonance. The Hero With A Thousand Faces is Campbell's pivotal work but almost all his books are excellent for fiction writers. Seeing interactions among story forms and types of heroes and villains, seeing links, repeated patterns, and changing approaches helps you know the materials best suited for your personal stories.

Look at the resonance the best Disney achieved, as contrasted by the shuddersome schlock the worst Disney becomes. Lion King went back to basics and became an instant classic. Lesser works go straight to video and thence to the vaults.

Movies could benefit generally from such considerations as resonance with myth and the ancient story patterns. The original Star Wars actually mined, or at least mimicked, Joseph Campbell's wisdom -- along with much of Frank Herbert's Dune, of course -- but by the time George Lucas made the sequels he evidently forgot anything he'd once known when the aging Campbell spent his last days on Lucas's Skywalker Ranch.

Steven Spielberg's career followed a similar arc. He'd used Hitchcock and Disney as models and produced classics such as Jaws, E. T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. When he branched out onto his own ego's limb, however, the results were mixed. Schindler's List and Munich were excellent but the last installment of the Indiana Jones saga left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. A taste we recognized from Star Wars: Episode One.

Failing to remain true to the old stories left them ruins of what might once have been.

Considering movies cost upwards of a hundred million dollars for blockbusters and a third to half that for so-called little films, you'd think the producers would insist on starting with the strongest material possible. Good writing, good stories and strong scripts, are any movie's foundation.

Producers try every way possible to ensure they'd make money with the finished product except the most important and, in many ways, the easiest and least expensive: classic, mythic, deeply resonant storytelling.

And old stories crop up in surprising guises, too. What is The Silence of the Lambs but Little Red Riding Hood painted noir? Clarice Starling is Red, going among the wolves, risking herself in dark woods... and she's even eaten, eventually, in a way, in the books at least. Resonance to our childhood deepens the whole experience and the reciting of nursery rhymes by the Jaime Gum character is unutterably chilling.

Sometimes movies or books catch resonance and are boosted into a higher regard than they deserve. Se7en was an example. It's not nearly as good as it is considered by many, being too artificial in its florid crimes, anything but accurate about police procedure, and hokey in its gotcha ending. It is a ragged plot unsure what it wants to accomplish. But, because it cites the seven deadly carnal sins, and comments on them in modern society explicitly through the Morgan Freeman character's dialogue, the film gets extra credit.

Fallen, from 1998, with Denzel Washington as a cop chasing a demon through several murder victims, almost got a boost from the eerie subject matter, with its hint at fallen angels and the proximity of an embodied Lucifer. Trouble was, the plot did not handle such matters cleanly, and this interfered with the resonance. It did not follow basic patterns and so fizzled into the equivalent of a mediocre X-FILES episode.

Should Clive Barker's novel Mister B. Gone ever be filmed it could easily suffer such a fate because producers will think it too simple. And yet Barker knows the old stories, and keeps to the chords to beautiful effect.

Some of these flawed films could be edited to improve them. Hitchcock could do it, or Welles. Both of them understood which parts of a story to expand, which needs only a hint. Hell, the final scene in Hitch's North By Northwest is perhaps 3 seconds in duration. It needs to be there but needs no elaboration whatsoever, and he understood these facts.

Knowing so well the function of each scene and every part of a story allows you to know which parts to compress or which to cut. What can be implied and what must be explained or shown blatantly.

All this and more are part of the craft of storytelling, and all good writers are lifelong students of this craft.

I've been observing a lot of such thinking as I read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Partly it's the graphic novel format, with its comic book conventionalities. Partly it's his concision. You can see choices he made about which panels to emphasize, what to leave off the page, and which key snippets of dialogue or narration are required to keep the story both moving and clearly in focus.

And so here we are back to my headache and all the thinking I did to produce only a few pages. Will readers appreciate all the work? Few will notice and that's as it should be; a fine desk, crafted from tropical hard woods, hand made with years of experience and with quiet but intense care, shows only a perfect whole and is considered a single piece of furniture, both attractive and useful, sturdy and elegant. Despite its many parts and pieces, and its complex design, it, like a good story, is of-a-piece and becomes one thing whole.

If I work right, then only other writers, and few of them at that, will grasp what must have gone into my work. And that's good craftsmanship, and good storytelling.

For now, genug.

Or, as Kant said at the end of his longest story, "Sufficit".

/// /// ///

Rejection City Rubble

These questions came up on Jay Lake's blog: How many rejections came to you before your first publication, and how many rejections have you accrued?


We don’t all keep track. I sure don’t. I just try to send at least two out for every one I get back. It’s a process for me rather than a reckoning or an accounting.

I’d submitted sporadically for six years, starting in 1974.

In 1980 I began submitting regularly. My first sale was “Weal & Woe” to MZB’s in Spring 1990. I’d had many near-misses, including almost snagging 3rd place in the first Twilight Zone contest, won by Dan Simmons.

So, if I had to estimate, I’d say maybe, what, 1000 - 1500 rejections before that first paying sale? Wow, I had no idea. If I had been keeping track I might have been discouraged.


I’m not counting unpaid publication or various other things, either. Face it, I just don’t pay attention to much beyond what I’m writing at the time, which explains my lack of business success. As you’ve said, Jay, the business part is what too many of us ignore to our detriment. So true.

I’ve never been able to internalize taking a more businesslike approach. And yes, I recognize this as a fatal flaw.

Once you're writing publishable prose, rejections are irrelevant to such things as talent or skill. I've long since concluded they are essentially random. Either an editor likes what you send in the few moments it slides under editorial gaze, or not. Same editor may later buy what has been previously rejected, or wonder what they ever saw in a work after they buy it.

This is why I don't bother with them. Sometimes there are good reasons for a rejection, sometimes not, but either way I have no control over that, beyond trying to conform to each publication's standards or to each editors expressed needs.

To me, rejections are noise, acceptances are signal, and payment is what the signal delivers.