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Process, Plot, Delany, Frost

frostokovich posts a thought-provoking piece at SFNovelists. The link is http://www.sfnovelists.com/2007/09/23/plots-and-process-and-samuel-r-delany/. And then my thoughts on the post are

As a result of Frost discussing Delany, I pulled the two Robin Scott Wilson books off my shelf and read Delany's original essay and then the more modern versions, one of which was by Jim Kelly (that's James Patrick Kelly to you). It was odd to see Delany chosen as the quintessential example of plot in Wilson's books Paragons and Those Who Can. We explicated Nova at Taos Toolbox and it was clear that Delany plotted that novel at some level. But he was writing to a gimmick of tarot and drug culture, so it is not, imo, an example of Delany as Delany. It is perhaps something more mechanistic than I typically think of as "Delany." Mechanistic in its edit and final form, as it appears to have grown from his organic journal. I don't recall the details of the story he's supposed to be writing the essay about in the Wilson book, but it's very clear from his essay that he refused to write about either plot or the story. This seems very like.

Which does not detract from the essay. He has an amazing discussion of his process that is well worth reading. As Frost also has an excellent discussion of his own process in his post at SFNovelists. (And I think I'm allowed to say now that I was an advance reader for GF's new book Shadowbridge, which has plot, story, and incredible notation of Delany sort, as well as embedded folk stories that make me pea-green with envy. Comes out in Dec or Jan from DelRey.)

Delany treats the process as the careful illumination of something he sees in his head that will change as he writes it down. It will never be quite the same as his artistic vision and he will see more of it as he writes. This seems to me to be writing without direction, in the plotting sense, an organic growth. It is possible to end up with a thing of great beauty, it is even possible to end up with a plotted story. But Delany claims that plot is something seen from the outside by a reader or critic and I don't agree with that.

What I took from Taos Toolbox is that plot is part of storytelling, it's a series of tools that make a story strong. I suspect that Delany held some idea of story in his head already and did not need to spend time thinking about it. Connie Willis, on the other hand, spends a great deal of time thinking about the story, the reversals, how to up the stakes, etc. She seems to do some sort of slow revealing of the story itself by contemplating the aspects of her plot. Delany writes that he slowly tries to capture the best, most specific word to describe what he sees in his head. I believe that Connie sits and tries to capture the best, most specific plot technique to lay out what she sees in her head as well. Connie is equally careful with voice and language. But listening to her at Taos and at LAConIV last summer, this part seems to come AFTER she has thought long and hard about how the plot will unfold, AFTER she has examined that particular story idea thoroughly.

I find that when one writes to an established story, it's all about the voice and the description. The plot is established before you start. For example, when one steals a plot from Shakespeare, or retells a classic fairy tale. You may set it on its ear, but you don't have to think about it. You think instead of the voice, the setting, the specific language. The plot has been laid out for you. And obviously this is satisfactory to the reader because many, many examples exist in current fantasy. And one could argue that all the various stories have already been written, so it's all based on an established story. Perhaps.

So it was a bit bizarre to see RSW choose Delany for plot. Maybe he just couldn't fit him in any other category, didn't have a category for "F'ing Brilliant."

And no wonder I have floundered around for so long in my own writing. RSW's two books were held up as texts to live by when I was at Clarion. Reading that essay, I learned nothing about plot and the aspects of plot, nothing about storytelling. In two weeks at Taos, it was laid out so I could see it, maybe learn to apply it. (The jury is still out on that.) I took it all in as the way of telling stories that would be INTERESTING to a reader, not just 5,000 words of pretty language. Which is how I finally came to understand Karl Schroeder's very brilliant critique of the Wendy story...pretty prose that almost stood on its own, but the story began on page 7. (Taos Toolboxers read a later version.)

One of the things I want my writing to do is to reach for something different, some different path that is an amalgamation of all the stories I've read, the styles. That's why it doesn't bother me that Ben isn't in Peter Pan or that my story has no relation to Barry's or anyone else's. It's influenced by it, but not a copy of it. It's derivative, a salute, but the plot is something else, something that expresses my issues about death. When I do steal a plot, I find that the writing goes very quickly, which is not my normal pace at all. Because for once I have a road map and I'm not groping my way in the dark for a road less traveled, like I usually do.

My notation, as Delany calls it, has improved in the past few years. But something else was still missing; my ability to understand how to tell a story. Even when I consciously went after story arc, I had no idea what I was doing, hence the not-quite convergence in the Mouse King. As I was writing and notating, it was not revealing itself. Hence, I was left with a Wendy story that was all wrong in its story pace, in what it said, in what was a reveal and what was a reversal, in how the reader reacted to the protagonist. And meanwhile, my prose danced in images notated from what I saw in my head, what illuminated itself as I went. Ditto Mouse King.

For me, the notation is what I do. I free that inner mind to make its very odd connections. It is the 'universality' that is hard. That's the story aspect. That is where, in Mouse King, I have to recognize what my story elements are, what my plot points are. I do sudden leaps to what is clever and novel, but it's a very slow process. I am looking at my Pygmalion story and now I understand the minor crit points I received a year ago, how crucial they are to making this story jump off the page. I was almost there. By floundering around on my own for 10 years. Ten years is too long to flounder. Wendy and Mouse King are about a year apiece. Is this any way to run a process? No.

I think that I need to do a form of notation regarding plot. As I write, I need to ask myself the very questions Chip is asking himself in terms of description, but more in terms of storytelling. I need to free the scene notation first, let the weird connections happen and get onto the page without my critic interfering at all. Let myself lose myself in it. And then, I need to go through my draft for a different notation. Is this leading here? Is this REALLY the story? How does this further the story? Who is the story? It started to happen with Mouse King. And I almost got there, but where I attempted symmetry and balance, I didn't quite get there.

And in Pygmalion, my climax and denouement aren't quite right, never have been. In this pass, I've been selecting earlier dialog more carefully, selecting actions to support the final scene. Because the final scene won't really change. It's the layering of the story unfolding up to that point that needed work. And now, I have to make sure what it is that I'm doing with the final scene. I can see that I never really resolved certain aspects of it in my head and thus, for the reader.

Meanwhile, as the Gen Ship story ferments in my hind brain, I'm hoping I can apply plot and story a bit more on purpose. But without going to some other story and saying "I'm really writing this."

Frog Out

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
michaeljasper
Sep. 26th, 2007 09:02 pm (UTC)
I really liked Greg's take on the Delany essay, and since I didn't read the Delany essay, that's all I have to go on. Reading your comments, I felt like what Delany was describing (and what you were describing) about the writing process was similar to describing a dream -- lots of wild, crazy, beautiful images we're trying like mad to capture and pin down with words (an excellent goal, too).

But sometimes dreams don't make sense -- there's no narrative, it's just images. That's where the storytelling skills come to play. And I guess the more steeped you are in stories, from lots of reading and critiquing, the stories come more easily as you notate those dreams.

I'd love to be able to write that way, but my brain's not strong enough to hold it all together and have it come out making any sort of sense. So I make rough outlines and lots of notes, and try to capture that original dream state of the first draft, when I'm telling the story to only me. When I revise, it's time to tell it to the world...

Good luck with your own stories.
frostokovich
Sep. 26th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
The reader's perspective
Frog,

I'm going to do the dangerous thing of stepping into Chip's shoes again, and suggest that his take on plot in that original essay describes how it's broken out structurally in most writing books and writing classes. We dismantle the story and talk about character and plot and theme and voice as if they're individual items capable of existing independent of one another, which a) isn't true and b)does not indeed reflect how they came to be joined in the first place. Deconstruction is an observation of the finished product, so when Delany says that teaching this way is akin to teaching someone to make a film by having them read a year's worth of film reviews, I know exactly what he means. None of which in any way negates what you write above. And Delany's notation process is something that can be taught and discussed in writing classes, whereas I don't know if I believe anyone can teach you how to write stories. Or, if they do, it's because they said something that triggered an "Ah-ha!" moment in you. Which I'll be happy to provide at no extra charge, guaranteed to be good for the life of the story or 100,000 words, whichever comes first.

Frost out
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )