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Mid point of classes

The semester is now half over. I just finished a mid-term exam on poetics. It’s all good except for the poetry essay. That one was a little iffy. Lots of terms in there but I don’t think I did a good job with the comparison contrast of the poets involved.

A finished story and a presentation for next week and then it’s off to Comicon in KC for the weekend. That’s going to be fun. I’m glad about it.

For Spring Break itself, another new whole story and a ten page paper. I am also hoping to work on a new technique in mixed media. I’m going to have to give up my tightly wound perfectionist tendencies for that one to happen. I bought the supplies for it though, so that pretty much means I intend to pursue it.  Good practice and time to make something new.

Some talk today with the visiting writer about how to put everything back together—my natural writing tendencies and all the things I’ve learned in school. I fret way too much over this kind of thing. And it’s making me paranoid and unhappy about writing anything at all. Well, art school was a little like that too. Eventually, I’ll find my voice. I wish I could find it in school, but I’m convinced it’s not going to happen and that’s going to be my mission once I get out. Maybe a genre workshop will help a little bit.

So will Spring.


Any idea can be a good story

It’s only been a few weeks into classes this semester, but I’ve already come across some interesting ideas about novel writing. I guess the most important ones are: although structure is a key to having a novel that is satisfying, structure alone (or any of the “rules” for writing well) doesn’t mean the book is good. The only place where the idea of a story succeeds or fails is in the execution.

I suppose that is an obvious statement. But maybe it helps a little in not getting hung up on some magic bullet that solves all the problems that come up when writing a story. It’s a myth. Better to focus on the fact that is just comes down to hard work and exacting detail. The right details.

But Henry James had some great thoughts in the Art of Fiction. I especially like his admonishment that any idea can turn out to be a good story. This is really important to remember, because people get very opinionated about this kind of thing. Realism, escapism, literary fiction or genre fiction—in the hands of a skillful and determined writer who actually cares about all the things make for good fiction any idea can become a good story.

But I will say this from my own experience: knowing which details are the critical details is easier to figure out if you work first with realism.

Think about it for a second. If you make up an entire world from scratch, you have to be able to make an experience for the reader that pushes them  to feel like they were born there. Otherwise the whole work is about world building, full of things in a normal story, people would find boring to read.

That’s no easy task. Writing from realism first though, gives you the chance to delve into things like setting as a reflection of character. Easier to do when everything in the setting is familiar. Important factors, like defamiliarization, are easier when objects already have a common connotation.

Working in short story form, in realism, is an exercise in minutia. It’s work on the word choice level, which is the foundation of fiction. It takes discipline. If I didn’t have a natural inclination for puzzles I might really hate it, because so much of the thing is a puzzle. The right word. The right image. The right moment. Things have to happen in the right order. Sometimes you write the end, when you thought it was the beginning. Sometimes the story isn’t what you thought it was about. Sometimes you aren’t even sure what it’s about until it’s finished. The whole thing is painfully meticulous.  




Working on a story for class.

It's taken a year, but I sort of have a process for writing literary fiction now. Unfortunately, it requires digging around in my personal experiences for vivid places and moments. Just what I never wanted to write about.

Still, for this kind of work, it's the only way to go. The problem now is--how to be sure that I let go of what might have happened in real life and let it take on a life of it's own.  That's actually a real challenge, because in the early stages I can feel myself fighting it. I want to say--but I didn't like that person or that place or that moment.

This is why I change the names of everything. I write about real places but I don't use the real names. I try not to write about real people.

How different is this from fantasy? Pretty different actually. I think fantasy takes longer to get into that zone, since I'm building it from the ground up. It takes time for it to become as real as any other place I've been. That 's part of how I know fantasy short stories aren't for me.

The big unanswered question here is what part of literary fiction can I take with me when I leave the program I am in? I keep getting asked the question--Kim, you do this so well. Why are you still thinking about fantasy as your true home? And how are you going to learn what you need to know about it?

I don't know why I think of myself as a fantasy writer first. I keep thinking, well, maybe it's because that's what I was raised as a reader on. Maybe it's because everything on TV is fantasy--ironic, since I don't watch it, but you get what I am saying here--when given the reigns, this seems to be what people of my generation do.

My ideas, my stories based on ideas I should say, tend to lean this way. Is it really so different than my painting? I can do realism, but my natural inclination is for flat cute and fuzzies. It just is.

All that being said, literary fiction has changed something about how I want to approach fantasy when I get back to it. I have a deeper understanding of what kind of story I want to tell. And I have a clearer path to get there--in literary fiction, anyway. Will those same tools and skills work in fantasy?

Maybe, but I've come to understand that as fun and exciting new worlds and new ideas are, there is so much abstraction found in the making of them that it makes it hard to get the same level of feeling out of it. You aren't going to be able to get the same depth of immediate understanding and connection with a character who comes from a world and a land that you aren't familiar with. Intellectually you might, but I doubt the emotional connection. And I've decided that's something very important to my own purposes for writing.

I'm still a good deal away from having to come up with a thesis project, and this is the first literary fiction I've done in a year's time. We'll see how workshop goes. I've got a lot to think about.


Is it really easier?

Do fantastical and genre elements in story craft make for easier writing?

I suppose on the surface it seems so. After all, here is instant hook factor. Instant drama. Fabricated problem. And it can be as big as one likes. No tiny, angsty conflicts need apply. The fate of worlds hang in the balance. So yeah, it seems easier.

 Say that a fellow writer at the University had to strip out all the genre elements from one of her stories and the more interesting points of view. What's left? Without lesbian roommates and zombie cats--where's the drama?

Oh, it's still in there. It was there all along, but without the fantastical, you have to get at it through old-fashioned subtext. Not as fun as zombie cats.

But it pays to remember that in fantasy, as well as everything else--what ever you introduce, you have to deal with--and that is absolutely not easy as it sounds.

So I don't know. In my own out-of-class writing, I have a great big fabricated problem that takes a lot of my thinking time when it comes to deciding how to make all those moving pieces work together. It's not easy. My favorite critique partner's book. There at the end he had to take that meandering journey through hell and give it context--a monumental task.

I guess the answer to this question is, we'll see.


Chapter Eight

I really ought to be thinking about Chapter Eight of The Baker of Benviue. Well actually, I am. What I mean to say is that I ought to be Writing it.

I've had my doubts. Opal Vanderling, just as she is in my writing plan, is wholly cliche. She's got the odds stacked against her given her role and background. I've had to do some thinking in how to bring her to life and make her seem real and worth knowing.

I have, finally. I think I know what I need to do there. My Next concern though is Vanderling himself. I just don't think I can write this story without him--but it is always perilous, I think, to introduce your villain's point of view. It steals the mystery and instead turns things into suspense. I've got it planned that way for a reason, of course. But I wonder sometimes if I have enough scenes to justify his chapters. Particularly, since he interacts with Opal, who might be around him enough to give us his position without needing to get inside of his thinking that deeply.

Or perhaps I'm feeling the weakness of his motivations. Which in fact means it is critical I write from his position, even if I end up chopping it all back out.

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Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.
Oscar Wilde