December 11th, 2009



So I was reading my friend Marshall's essay on Story ( the other day and it got me to thinking. For Marshall, a good story begins with character, not worldbuilding, not an idea, not technique. He goes on to describe such a story, in general. And yes, what he describes sounds like a good story.

For me, the very reason I write genre fiction is because of the ideas and the worldbuilding. Which is not a slam at Marshall in any way. I began, recently, to see short stories as a mix of worldbuilding, plot and characterization. Emphasize one and the other two had to be scaled back. I was noticing that in short-shorts, writers were telling me that they used very limited visuals, such as a single room, or in one case, a teapot. Or one might rely on the reader's knowledge of tropes and/or the writer's world in order to scale back on the worldbuilding. The reader has to do some of the work.

And, as always, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my own writing-in-progress because something was stopping me in certain stories, such as the gen ship story. And along with talking to The Dude about it, I also emailed frostokovich and said that I knew I had characters, conflict, subtext, style and worldbuilding. And something was still wrong in several WIP and my editor self couldn't put my finger on it. I thought my cues to the reader might be wrong. Or something else about the meta aspects of the story.

And frostokovich responded that yes, I had my characters and my worldbuilding down. That if he had to point to something, he might suggest that I focus on desire. That what my characters wanted/needed was getting muddled by the end of the story. That I didn't seem to lack it at the start of the story. Just that somewhere in the middle it gets lost and when my story works it's because I've picked up that thread again. And The Dude said he was spot on.

And a lightbulb went on. Click. Desire could mean a lot of things, some big, some little. If I had paid Frost a dollar for every time he told me about desire driving a story, he'd be like a bazillionaire by now (with compounding, of course). 'Cause, like, Frost and I have been emailing back and forth about writing for a very long time (He taught at my Clarion in 1996).

And then I thought about how this made perfect sense, that in the gen ship story, my character is busy opening hatches, or trying to, and she (and I) have no idea why she's doing this. And that was why the whole scene went flat on me and I couldn't move forward. I could skip over it and outline the scenes that follow it, but again, most of them are a bit vague because I still haven't settled in my head what's driving the characters to do what they're doing.

And it also makes sense in terms of the mouse king, where I need to edit down to the desire and keep it focused through to the end, carving away the unnecessary bits. Which is what I was told to do two years ago and I misinterpreted that to mean 'cut out all the scenes that don't involve character y.'

And I was excited. Epiphany moment. So I babbled about it to klingonguy who was nice enough to listen and then told me an anecdote about another writer having a similar realization after hearing the same thing over and over and wow, it wasn't just me.

And I thought to myself, gee, why didn't they mention desire at Taos Toolbox? You would think Connie Willis and Walter Jon Williams would know all about this desire thing. So I pulled out my notebook and read my notes.

"July 16, 2007 [first lecture of the second week, a Monday] WJW Lecture on Character," my notes read.

"The single most important thing you can do for your character is tell us what your character wants."


Desire in a single sentence explanation.

My notes go on: "Story is 1) how he gets what he wants; 2) how he doesn't get what he wants; 3) how it changes." And it went on from there, in wonderful detail.

Gee, I guess we did talk about this at Taos Toolbox ( now accepting applications, btw). I just wasn't ready to hear and understand what Walter and Connie were saying.

Now that I've had this sudden insight into things that I've been told over and over, it's up to me to get it internalized and apply it. And I think that's why I agree with both John Kessel's point and Greg Frost's comment on Marshall's post that you can write stories for a number of years, publish them even, and still not have figured out what makes a good story. It doesn't mean you're always writing crap. It means that when you write a good one and an editor recognizes it as good, you don't know how to do it again with another story, except by trial and error. Me, I'd like to be doing it on purpose as much as possible.

'Scuse me while I go and make sure I know what my character wants so I can tell the reader.

Frog Out