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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.  





I am starting to see some little glimmers of life in this story. Some small indications that it might be growing on its own. This one is a revision--as in, to see it again in a new way, I hope. And that is harder than you might suppose.

I always find it very difficult not to prewrite--not to jump to plot, not to panic and say there is nothing worth writing about when I can't see the whole piece. This is even harder, in that it is complete. This is technically a second draft, but one where everything has to be on the cutting block and I desperately want to keep some pieces of it--probably all the wrong ones.

Then there is the language. Nothing pleases me more and makes me just giddy than to pull out all the stops and write pretty. But now, I will admit, there is a small inner voice of restraint. It takes a harder look at all those words and deftly trims out the ones that don't add anything to the actual picture. And--in voice too, it makes me pause, makes me think--is this too obscure somehow, too stilted for the time and place and type of character I'm listening to speak--is it my writerly voice or her true one?

These small things may actually be the only thing that I can come away with from my time spent in Literary Fiction. A slightly more refined sensitivity--and a quiet one--I must say. It's not much more than a hestitation or an uncomfortable uncertainty with my words that heretofore did not exist.

I have not yet thought that it is possible for me to make the transition between genre Fantasy and Literary Ficiton. It's a dangerous proposition. But here, at last, as I try to apply what very little I have learned--I see that I actually have learned something, when I was sure it was to be all for naught and that I would have to abandon Fantasy if I wanted to write well. It may not be true.

Oh, but this is me being overly optimistic. I see lots of trouble ahead. A weak setting, made weaker still by improbabilty issues. Contrived going-ons. Watch and see if I don't get slapped with a purple prose warning--no matter how much restraint I try and show. Let's not even talk about sentimentality--I doubt I can get around it, though I did an admirable job on the fantasy end. And then the killer--all those things that I am using to ground the story in reality have a dear price--they have to reconsile at the end. No magical happily ever afters--what started the thing must end it as well.

Still, I'd like to try and see if I can't revise my way to success this time--instead of dropping everything and just writing from reality, telling myself I need the practice There isn't any doubt--I really do. I am so young and so new at this. But I'd like to dig deeper in that pile of decomposing emotion, really deep. I haven't had the right tools, the right knowledge to make decent sense of it--but I have some small ones now that I didn't before.

Once I did a tutorial painting where the entire thing was rendered with a 1 pixel brush.How many brush strokes do you think it took to render it, without blending? I kind think that's where I am at. I can do it--but it's going to be pretty hard. Mistakes are going to happen and I am going to be convinced that I've done nothing but make a nasty ugly mess of something that was flawed but at least had a little beauty to it.

I want to try and stay committed though. This time, I am hoping when I hear the inevitable--this is unclear, the image is cluttered and cliche--I won't go running. When the plot starts going where I want it to and not where it needs to--I hope I can be brave enough to wreck what I thought was good and suffer with not knowing for a while. And--I hope , if I really think it needs a little bit of a plot, I won't be afraid to say so.


Prepping for Output

Oh! It's totally premature of course, but as I begin to put together a final mock up for this painting it's really important that it is the proper size for output. And too I am going to color calibrate the Cintiq to the print house's ICC profile.

Why? Two very good reasons. This piece is dark. And it's printing to canvas. Already, that means a value and a color shift.

I am also going just a bit larger--11 x 14 gallery wrapped. Personally, I like them. Easy to transport. No glass. Ready to hang. Of course that also means the other down sides. No frame or mat to match your decor. Because it is a small piece of art, gallery wrap means it stays small.

But when I exhibited at the library it was kind of nice that it didn't have to hang on the wall. They put it on a small tabletop easle. I kind of liked that.

It's a tough choice. Since it isn't for me. I can only guess where it might go. I'm thinking smaller and lighter is better--there is nothing worse than having some huge piece of art you don't have room enough to hang. This one at least could nestle itself on a book shelf or desk or a wine cabinet--and small enough to tuck in drawer or under the bed or in a closet--I change pictures around at Christmas--the mantlepiece. It's a pain finding all new homes for those photographs for a month or two.

Now, we are talking quite some time from now for a finish. I have a great deal of painting to do--as I have seen the final composition appearing quite late. But I can see the end of it coming--that's the important thing.

The painting itself has to be quite a bit bigger for a gallery wrap, as it requires extra image to go around the sides of the stretchers. It takes an 11 x 14 and changes it into a 15 x 18 for the sake of production. That's extra inches of painting to do. In this case extra forest and flowers and rocks and things.

But---this is like making something for Jane. Fun. The work of it is part of what makes it so delightful. I am very sorrowful that I had to ruin the surprise--but I didn't have a choice. I would have spent months doubting and fretting and wondering if I were just courting another disaster of a far worse sort.

Thank goodness I only have to worry over clumsy drawing and insipid color choices. I am a lucky, lucky girl.

Painting. And heart.

I am sitting here, waiting for a pair of stories to hit my inbox so that I can critique them. In the meantime, I am doing some prewriting for a new draft.

Today, instead of really hitting the house cleaning hard, I seem to have drifted around in some sort of reverie. Thinking about Fantasy and Literary Fiction and what that means to me as young writer. Truth with a small t and a capital t. Narrative made small by wallowing in the pain of the ego without redemption--narrative made thin by constructing a truth far greater, but hopelessy contrived.

You know, finally, I sat down and took a look at a painting that I haven't touched in a month. I was afraid to think about an elaborate background for it--having tried to make one when I was drafting the figures and being unable to do so effectively. Most people paint from the background and move forward. Makes sense.

So I sat there today, pondering--is it too late? Did I miss my chance to really put something together?

Actually, having the characters done first (not all the way, but close) really helped in terms of concept and scale. I looked at it again, a couple of hours later--this sort of mock up I have going. Wow. I couldn't be more pleased. Of course, now I have to try and paint it and struggle with value and color and pasting things together and making foreground bushes and lighting.

A lot more work. But worth it. It will make a great portfolio piece for me--I can think of a couple of places it can go right away.

Some how. Some way. This relates to my writing questions. There is a lesson here--one about scale and one about heart. I don't really know what it is, but it's there.

I was having a real moment of crisis over this little painting--which has tested my resolve to paint it every step of the way. I didn't think I could draw it up. I didn't think I could paint it. I didn't think I could make a whole illustration out of it. Then--well--I didn't think I'd be able to send it out to its intended recipient--the whole reason I even started working on it. I almost thought I would not even be able to look at it without feeling some awful wrongness.

I am very fortunate. Some good people out there said, give it time. Don't give in to that fear--don't toss out your joy because something scared you. The things that you make... have heart. They mean something.

So back to writing. Ask me why I might be willing to write fantasy--even if it really does take all my pretty prose and turn into a pile of meangingless shit--I couldn't answer that before. Maybe I do know in a way--it has something to do with heart.

We'll see what time does with that one.


They say if you have trouble getting things done, put something you loathe at the top of your list. The second one gets done a whole lot faster.

I think this is what is going on with my return to painting. I'd rather do anything than write. And I have a lot of writing to do. So what I am inclined towards? Painting, of course. I painted yesterday and this morning and I keep thinking I'd like to go do some more this afternoon. But I need to be working on two drafts. Two. One due this week one due next week.

One's a revision I can cobble together--the other is new. The new one is harder because I can't decide what I want to explore. I meet all kinds of interesting people who have something to say, but it's hard to know which one is going to have the staying power for a story of some kind.

Now in painting, I am blocking in color, preparing to really get to work and start to paint. The fun stuff. It's sort of like having written the first half of a story and it just starts rolling along in it's own little world.

In writing I have three, maybe four exploratory little partials. Interesting. Just not sure which one to pick. Probably just need to write some more until I hear something irresistable. I've got some good stuff, just not sure where to go... is it plottery making me unable to choose? Maybe. I got everything but trouble, and that's what a story is about.

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