Saturday, November 23, 2013

Common Mistake #3: Physical Descriptions in Place of Characterization

Another problem I see a lot is the mistaken belief that one needs to provide a detailed physical description of every character that crosses the page, no matter how minor. Beginning authors seem particularly focused on eye and hair color. Here's the thing: no one cares. No one ever said, "Hey, I bought this great book: it's protagonist had blue eyes. Can you believe that?! It was so great to see that in a book!"

There are three problems with providing too much physical description of characters (and to some extent, of settings).

First, timing. Beginning authors often feel they have to provide the character's appearance immediately upon that character's initial entrance. There is certainly a logic to that, but then what one often gets is expository lump right in the middle of what is supposed to be an action scene. Say an assassin jumps out at our hero: if the author feels compelled to provide a detailed description of what the killer looks like, then instead of the rapid pace of swordplay, gun fire or fisticuffs, the story comes to a complete standstill while we are briefed on disheveled hair, wild eyes, rumpled suit, and so on down to the shoelaces. Interesting as all of this might be, it is less relevant and compelling then the fact the individual in question is trying to kill the viewpoint character.

When police try to debrief an incident, for example, the witnesses are often hard pressed to identify their assailant's hair and eye color and height and so on because their attention was pretty much focused on the fact that they were being assaulted. In the heat of the moment, eye color is pretty far down the list of what people notice; so the reader won't really notice its absence either, if the writer provides sufficient action. What the reader will notice is that description replaced action; that the action ground to an unexpected halt at the precise moment the author should have been building tension.

Second, although the author may have cast the character in a particular way, imposing that one specific actor/description on the reader is unnecessarily restrictive. Yes, the author may have worked hard to picture the scene s/he is trying to depict down to the specifics of hair and eye color, but contrary to the beginner's understanding of the process, the writer's job is not to reproduce that scene in the reader's brain exactly as the author originally pictured it. On the contrary, one wants a certain level of vagueness, of blank canvas, onto which the reader may project their own experiences and preferences. Just as a playwright has to allow for a certain amount of interpretation of the script by the director and actors, the writer has to leave room for the reader to bring something to the project.

For example, if the story features a bully, then it is far better if in the reader's mind that bully merges with that bastard down in accounting who is currently making their life miserable. Of course their conscious mind is not about to suffer any such confusion, since pretty sure guy in accounting is not in fact king of the space vampires, or whatever; but great fiction, like great opera, often bypasses the intellect and goes directly to the viscera, with people's emotions. The resonance between the writing and the reader's own experience may be disrupted, however, if one insists on establishing definitively that the guy in accounting is not the bully under discussion because the one in the book has red hair and blue eyes.

Or, to take an example from the other end of the emotional scale, if one is too precise in describing the love interest, one runs the risk of including a detail that is, for the reader, a deal breaker. "Electric blue eyes" are as likely to remind them of their ex as of their current lover. (It is the same reason why it seldom pays to be too explicit in sex scenes: if it doesn't happen to be the reader's kink, one is more likely to get an "eewww!" than a sale.)

So why go there? If the writer insists on determining every microscopic detail of the experience for the reader because that happened to be how the writer pictured the scene, then it's not about trying to be precise, it's about being a control freak. If one wants to build readership, one has to give up some control so the reader can take some ownership of the reading experience. If one wants readers to recommend the book to their friends, then the reader has to come to think of it as one of their books.

Third, the author of course believes one breathes life into a character by providing all this detail; but in fact it often has the opposite effect: by lavishing attention on the physical description, the author is to that same degree likely to skimp on actual characterization. Eye color does not a character make, because one can randomly (re)assign hair and eye color and not change the character in any fundamental way. (Well, unless these things have special significance in this particular SF&F world, that grey eyes indicates elvish ancestry or some such...). Characters are generally memorable because of their actions, motivations, attitudes, strengths, flaws—in short their personalities— rather than eye or hair color. If one's character notes are all about physical appearance, then you're doing it wrong.

As we frequently reassure each other, it's not appearance that counts, but what's inside.

Which is not to suggest that one should never provide any detail of appearance or setting; only that one needs to ensure these details are inserted when timely and relevant; that they don't occur as a disruption of the narrative, or in overwhelming quantity (see previous column, "Common Mistakes #2: Less is More).

[Cartoon stolen from Bliss by Harry Bliss Sept 22, 2015)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Advice to Redacted

Novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig wrote a pretty good response to an aspiring writer who wrote to ask about writing as a career. AN EMAIL ABOUT WRITING, AND MY RESPONSE is a pretty good read, and I recommend it. I particularly liked this bit:
    Worry more about writing good stories than getting published. The publishing industry is just the minotaur in the middle of the maze: the challenge at the end. You still have to get there. You still have to wander the maze in order to fight the monster.
and this is also good advice:
    Don’t chase trends—let trends chase you.
The column is inspirational...but, um, I can't help but feel that Wendig missed the mark on answering the question asked. When Redacted expresses concern that
    I’ve been hearing these nasty horror stories about writers going hungry, being unable to find jobs...

I think he's asking, "How do I make a living as a writer?" And not just a living, but really, "How do I obtain the lifestyle to which I aspire as a successful writer?"

The answer to "how do I become a writer" is very simple: one writes stuff. If one has the least talent and invests the usual 10,000 hours of continuous study and effort, one can likely even manage to become a decent writer. Perhaps with persistence, a published writer. Taking Windig's advice would probably help in becoming a published writer.

The answer to "how do I make a good living as a writer" is, however, entirely different: you can't.

I know just about all 200 or so of the SF writers in Canada, and out of that number, I'd estimate that only 3 or 4—so call it 2%—actually make a decent living as writers. Even Sawyer—unquestionably the best known of Canadian SF writers—recently remarked that he couldn't make a living by writing alone: his speaking engagements are a necessary supplement. (Sawyer is a fabulous speaker, by the way, which cannot be said of many writers. It is not a sideline that most writers could avail themselves.) I could name another 10 or so whose major source of income is writing, but their lifestyle is strictly hand-to-mouth. For example, I remember one of them —one of the better ones—exclaiming over a minor winfall that afforded her the luxury of buying box of tea large enough to last her a month. I strongly suspect that this would be the sort of 'horror stories' to which Redacted was referring. Everyone else basically had day jobs to support themselves. Of course, many of these day jobs involved working as writers—speech writers, technical writers, journalists, copy editors, staff writers, English teachers, and so on—but still, 9-5 jobs working for other people.

So, people who pursue writing as a career in the expectation of being one of the 2% or so of writers who are actually able to make a living as novelists are basically deluding themselves. If one's motivation for writing is to acquire the writer's lifestyle, then one had better understand that that life is about earning the occasional box of tea, not the glamorous life of the best seller. The chances of making it as a big time writer are about the same as a random hockey-playing kid making it to the NHL. Obviously, some do, but um, one doesn't plan one's life around that expectation.

[Having said that, though, my colleague the career counsellor tells the story of a student who explained to him that he didn't require career counselling because he had already decided that he was going to play for the NHL. My colleague insisted that the student develop a 'backup plan' for his education, "just in case" that didn't work out (*snicker* *snicker*); but the student in fact went on to become a huge hockey star, much to my colleague's eternal chagrin. So far be if from me to tell anyone that it is impossible for them to make it to the NHL or the Times bestseller list; I'm just saying wait until after your first $100,000 advance to quit your day job.]

I really have two points here. First, becoming a writer should not be confused with becoming a full-time professional. There are lots of opportunities for writers; indeed, thanks to new self-publishing technologies, there is now no excuse for anyone not to become a writer.

There has been some fascination in social media lately, for example, with the statistic that in Iceland, one person in ten has a novel to their credit. People seem surprised and impressed by this statistic, but I think that response is based on confusing "has written a novel" with "is a full-time writer". Because I'm pretty sure that is not the case. I very much doubt if the market for Icelandic literature is large enough to feed very many writers; nor that much Icelandic literature gets translated (or written in English) to penetrate the international market. What that one in ten figure is really telling us is that in Iceland, people write (and finish and circulate) their novel, even knowing that there isn't any money in it.

Being an editor, I have the (undoubtedly annoying) habit of asking people "written any good books lately?" as a variant on the usual conversational gambit of asking people what they have read recently. But here's the thing: probably one in five answer that they have indeed written a novel (or at least started one), now safely tucked away in their dresser's bottom drawer. Granted that I am probably dealing with a biased sample given the sort of people I am likely to run into, I don't think it is too much of a reach to suggest that perhaps one in ten Canadians have also written (or started) a novel. The difference between Canadians and Icelanders, then, is that Icelanders then go on to share their novel in the reasonable expectation that they have something to contribute to the body of Icelandic literature; whereas Canadians do not think in those terms at all. Quite aside from the fact that we are intimidated by a North American market that swamps any sense of a Canadian canon to which our work may contribute, we tend not to see literature as a conversation between writers, or between writers and readers, but as a way to make money. I very seldom hear people ask, "do you think anyone would be interested in reading my book"; instead they ask me, "will anyone buy it?" It is a subtle but significant difference. If a Canadian cannot believe s/he can make it as a professional writer, the book(s) go in the bottom drawer. But that's crazy. Just because you can't make the NFL team, doesn't mean you and a bunch of the guys can't get in some ice time. If it is okay to be an accountant during the day, and play Hockey Thursday nights in your local league, why isn't it okay to be an amateur writer? But in our capitalist mindset, if a book doesn't sell well enough to pay out on all the hours it took to write it—at an hourly rate equivalent to or exceeding our day-job rate—then it must be considered a failure.

This is astonishingly wrong-headed.

Contrary to the position of capitalist ideologues, market forces are not the only measure of worth. Indeed, Stephen Meyer and David Brown and E. L. James and a host of others are pretty compelling evidence that market forces are a very long way from the best measure of quality.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against making money from writing, and wish every writer the best of luck. But the expectation that one should be able to make a full-time living from writing is well, unrealistic. Poets and origami artists have had to face the fact that there are very few full time positions for poets and paperfolders, but thankfully poetry and origami have not died out.

Second, Redacted wants to know the secret of becoming a full-time author because "economics isn't for him". This reminds me of an acquaintance who patiently explained that she had had to quit her job "because I'm not like other people. I cannot tolerate the restrictions of a 9-5 job. As an artiste, I have to have an outlet for my creativity. I have to write!" One got the strong impression that she believed herself surrounded by worker bees who were perfectly content working 9-5 jobs, who didn't get just as frustrated with long hours, annoying coworkers/bosses, and mind-numbing routine as she. In other words, she was a spoilt, self-entitled idiot. There is nothing wrong with Redacted asking how one achieves one's dream job; but it is important to recognize that that is one's dream job, not one to which one is inherently entitled. I note, for example, that my aforementioned acquaintance never in the thirty years since produced a single short story, let alone a novel, while plenty of the worker bees she disdained managed to hold down two jobs, raise a family and still knock out an impressive novel or two.

Or, to put it another way, the complaint that one can no longer make a living as a novelist is kind of a first world problem. There are like a billion people on this planet who can't access clean water, so I find it hard to get worked up over the fact that one can't always quit one's day job to indulge oneself in full time writing.

Again, don't get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with aspiring to become a full-time novelist; but one does not generally get there by starting as a full-time novelist. One gets there by writing. After work, after the kids are in bed, and if they are very lucky, a little bit extra during NaNoWriMo. Once one has had some critical and financial success, one might consider whether quitting the day job to free up more time for writing is a practical option; starting from the assumption that that the world owes one a living as a wordsmith is the road to disappointment.

This is not a popular position. When I say things like this, aspiring writers tend to hear "you're telling me I can never be a writer, and I should give up"; which is, of course, pretty much the exact opposite of what I am actually arguing. I'm an educator as well as a development editor, so I pretty much believe that given sufficient commitment anyone can become a competent writer; and that almost all of my clients could become proficient or brilliant writers. I'm just arguing that becoming a writer should not be confused with becoming a best seller. That aiming at the best seller market my actually demand that you become a worse writer than you are now. That selling your vision, your voice to break into the American mass market may be a really bad goal. What I am arguing is that maybe it is okay to be a part-time writer, to write for an hour or two each evening, rather than all day. (As it happens, most full-time writers only write for part of the day anyway, the rest being spent on marketing and recharging their creative energies, but that's a topic for another column.)

Let me give you an example: H. A. Hargreaves was a university English professor who devoted roughly one week every second year to writing short stories. But over his career he produced two short story collections, North by 2000+ and Growing up Bronx which represents a respectable output. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that the stories in North by 2000+ have had a profound influence on Canadian SF. Hargreaves never expected nor made a living from his writing, but he nevertheless made a truly significant contribution to Canadian culture and became a hugely important part of the conversation with other writers, critics and readers about what makes writing Canadian.

It is not necessary to be a professional writer to count yourself a writer. Writing doesn't have to be a career. Authors who disdain 'amateur' writers are not just pompous, they are suffering from false consciousness: they have been duped into believing that schooling is about job training rather than education; that culture is only valid if it is an industry; and that the only measure of success is income. Instead, they should be celebrating the opportunities to join with all writers and readers (most readers these days being other writers) in the conversation that is Canadian culture. They need to recognize themselves as a 'class' and develop the class consciousness that rejects the divide and conquer logic of professional vs amateur. They need to embrace readers and beginning writers and self-published writers as their brothers and allies in lobbying for more recognition of the arts. They need to become, in Gramsci's terms, the organic intellectuals that are the vanguard of the revolution to—

Oops, sorry. Getting carried away there. Baby steps.

Write your novel, your stories. Strive to get better; strive to have something to say. Stop asking if you can make a living at this. Do it because you have something to say; because you were blessed with a muse; or simply because self-expression is more enjoyable for you than stamp collecting. If you ever get good enough to actually make significant amounts of money, well, bonus!

But if you're in it for the money and the lifestyle...have you considered buying lottery tickets as a more viable career option?