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Knowing When to Stop

Revisions and editing must end sometime

runner-crossing-finish-line1

There are many parts of the creative process when we have to come to the point of Enough. Or Done. The point at which there is no quarter for yet another tweak. It may be resisting the urge to add an epilogue or coda. It may be when you say to yourself: “Sometimes simpler and more straightforward is better.”

I was thinking about this after my music theory lesson last night. My teacher was criticizing the beginning of the soprano solo in part of my requiem for repeating Mi-Re-Do in one key, and then modulating up one key and doing Mi-Re-Do again in the next measure. He called it overly simple. Even cliche.

My teacher tends to filter all of his feedback to me through what he would do instead, so I have to take that into consideration. I believe it’s bold to start a solo very simply before it dives into coloratura; it’s like a diving board in aquatics. His truly useful comments are kind of said under his breath, as though it weren’t that important, because it was so obvious to him.

And we all carry around with us an “inner” teacher or tutor modeled on one or more instructors we’ve actually encountered often. They are the little devil on our shoulder often, the one who says something we’ve created is too out-there, and we need to reign it in. They are also the little angel on the other shoulder, urging us to keep improving–even past the point of seriously diminishing returns.

I will make any number of other changes my teacher suggested last night, but the soprano solo stays as is. Any further changes to it would run the risk of a conflict between my sense of it from two very different perspectives, so that even a small tweak might suddenly change the sense of the whole.

And that’s something I think about in editing my writing too. Small tweaks like punctuation and spelling don’t often factor in, but once you add or delete phrases, the complexity of a story feels more like carving out pumpkin innards. There are all these seeds and strands connected to each other unless I scrape it down to nothing: That is, I start over and rewrite a whole chapter or section.

I also have a revise-and-resubmit offer mouldering in my inbox for the past seven months. All the revisions the editor suggested are useful and could improve the novel, but I am waiting for an offer elsewhere from an editor who loves it so much, they want to sign it before the revisions are made.

So I focus on other things and don’t start another round of revisions yet. For now, I’m done.

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The Question of Narrator

Before you write word one, pick your storyteller

Storyteller

Some of us, myself often included, start writing a new story with little or no thought about who should be the voice, and how he, she, or it should speak. I tend to use first person only when I know there will be only one point-of-view character. Otherwise, my stories tend to be omniscient third-person narrators in the past tense. But different stories require different types of narration. And picking the right narrator before you begin writing may mean the difference between a mediocre story and a great one.

Voice

The choice of voice for a story usually starts out with one of two choices: First person (narrator says “I” or “we”) or third person (narrator says “he, she, they, it”). Having plural narrators is unusual, but it is a possible choice, if they can agree to tell a single story without arguing. You get a more consistent narrator from first person, but you run a higher risk readers won’t identify with him/her/it/them. You can do scenes without your main character for a nice variety with a third person narrator, you can get inside the thoughts and perceptions of more than one character, but you can’t play with the veracity of the narrator as much when the narrator is omniscient; there is a tacit contract that omniscience means absolute truth.

Veracity

And it’s interesting choosing a first- or third-person narrator who is unreliable, either because the narrator doesn’t remember things well, or is prone to lying or embellishing facts. In such cases, you have to establish the fallibility of the narrator early enough so your audience knows to be suspicious. It’s especially good if you can familiarize the reader early on with the narrator’s tells (gestures, phrases) when lying, so they’re easier to spot. Otherwise, you have to work hard to show counter-evidence all the time.

Timeframe

You can also pick a narrator who has already experienced the whole story and is retelling it for the reader or some other audience. This too can be a first-person or third-person narrator, depending how central the narrator was to the action of the story. And in this case, unless your third-person, future-perspective narrator is a journalist or telepath, he/she/it cannot be omniscient. Such narrators tell a story from an outsider perspective, picking up whatever clues are there to discover motives for people’s actions.

Most often with a first-person narrator, and occasionally with a third-person narrator, you may choose to use the present tense instead of past tense. In that case, the narrator is telling events from a present perspective–it’s happening as it’s being told. The benefit of a present-tense narrative is that it makes the action more immediate and potentially heightens the suspense, but it is an infrequent enough choice, that some readers will bristle when they encounter it. And it doesn’t allow flashbacks and flashforwards as easily as third-person narration does.

Point of view

When you have a third-person omniscient narrator, you can get inside several characters’ heads. You can also have different first-person narrators, so that when you switch points of view, the “I” is a different person. You just have to make sure the reader knows you’re in a new character’s head, much more so than when you just change point of view. Consistency of narrative voice is a strong expectation among readers.

Judgment

An underexplored facet of narrators is their appraisal of the characters and events they describe. An omniscient narrator doesn’t get this option very easily. The degree to which a narrator allows personal judgment to color how the story is told can make a narrator more distinctive. If they’re always trying to be fair to everyone and everything, narrators will be barely noticed, and the story will have to struggle on with only plot and description and character development to rely on. When the narrator is someone with an interesting voice and opinions, he/she/it garners more of the reader’s attention. Think of Elle in “Legally Blond” as an example.

Humanity

There are a variety of potential narrators who aren’t even human. Imagine a story told by a house, or a dog, or a ghost. Nothing requires your narrator to be human, so consider that function as well. It may even be a point of suspense for the readers as they try to figure out what is telling the story.

 

If you enjoyed this post about choosing a narrator, you may be interested in past essays about writing craft, including The Value of Shock, Sneaky Exposition, The Prewriting Challenge, Editing Tips: Descriptions, Editing Tips: Dialogue, Editing Tips: Plots, Conversation/Character Starter, Potholes and Plotholes, Portraying the Other Gender, The Try-Fail Cycle, and Novelty and Comfort.

 

Deconstruction is a long word

It’s really about departing from expectations

the seven
The Seven from “The Boys”

So I’ve been watching “The Boys” on Amazon Prime the past couple of days, and it’s hailed as revolutionary deconstruction of the superhero genre. It’s got lots of revenge killings, rape, an invisible voyeur, corporations taking over through blackmail, and a lot of the other stuff you see in dystopian fiction, but this show gives all the bad qualities to the ones you usually think of as the good guys: the superheroes.

You end up rooting for the ones who are picking off the corrupt superheroes one by one, almost all of them motivated by revenge. (One’s girlfriend gets smashed to a pulp by a careless super speedster just as she is proposing that the two of them move in together.)

This thesis about the temptation of selfishness when you get a certain amount of power is nothing new, though. The seminal phrase:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

was written by Lord Acton in 1887.

What is actually happening in “The Boys” is much simpler than Derrida’s complicated take on language and contextual meaning. It is about playing with readers’ expectations.

Like many other shocks and surprises in stories, going against type and going against convention is a good tool when used in moderation. One of my favorites is when in Lord of the Rings Arya kills the Night King because he is only protected from men, and she is not one.

peni parker

Another in recent pop culture was Peni Parker, a Japanese girl from the distant future and her robot SP//DR, in the animated film “Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse.” A young schoolgirl isn’t the usual type to be fighting super villains.

Some writers will kill off point-of-view characters halfway through a story. Others will use a narrator whom the reader knows is a liar. You can set up two characters to fall in love, and then dash that expectation in some way.

There are a multiplicity of ways in which one can shock or surprise an audience, but it is important to keep one or two fingerholds in convention, or your audience will be so lost in what to expect, they give up.

 

If you want to check out more of my thoughts on popular entertainment, check out Stranger Things Far From Home and Subversive Fiction.

Dark Inspiration

Inspiration is always productive, but sometimes dark

Let Them Eat Cake
Marie Antoinette, when told the people of France had insufficient bread to eat.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve looked at my computer and told myself: I’m not in a good enough mood to be creative. But then I remind myself that the only reason I ever wrote any stories with horror and dread in them was because I was in a bad mood. I guess we need to validate those emotions for our readership too.

So a couple of rejections from artistic development programs and a romantic life that feels like a hurricane at times were all it took to set me on a brand new, big project:

A requiem.

Requiems are sung prayer masses to the dead in the Catholic Church, and they are right up there with operas for ambitious undertakings, because there is a lot of dramatic text in a requiem mass. Many by previous composers have slogged on through 60-90 minutes of alternating sturm, drang, and desperate hope. (Mozart’s is one of my favorites.) I can’t imagine getting through all that text in less than an hour. Mozart died without finishing his; it was that stressful.

Dies irae

I have tweaked this particular version a tad. The third movement is called the “Dies Irae” (DEE-ess EE-ray, Day of Wrath), and it was a later addition to the mass (13th century or so). It dwells on a coming judgment day, and it yanks the requiem away from praying to God for the good treatment of our beloved dead and focuses on the living: It is a prayer instead to petition God not to send us to Hell.

It seems a pretty clear promotional call to action by the Church: Join us, so we can teach you how to avoid eternal damnation. Since the “Dies Irae” movement, one of the longest in the Requiem, was always a departure from the main themes of the Requiem, I decided to push it a bit further. Now instead of scaring people into the pews, singers of my Requiem will briefly remind Satan to make sure he’s doing his job and request that he go ahead and claim all the evil people still living a bit early to leave us in a loving world filled with equanimity.

No compassion

For context: I had to care for and bury my lover, Carl, during his fight with AIDS in 1993. You may remember that the Reagan administration chose to ignore the epidemic for years, until the Reagans’ friend, Rock Hudson, announced in the summer of 1985 he had contracted the disease and died a few months later. But they continued to underfund medical research to cure it despite that, and the White House was making jokes in 1986 that there was no reason to panic, because they believed AIDS only killed gay men and drug addicts at that time.

It was the people like that for whom I rewrote the “Dies Irae.” Those who let people die because they’re different.

Here we go again

And the current scenario is approaching that again with the Trump administration willfully caging and torturing men, women, and children from other countries who just came here to escape violence where they’d come from. Despite petitions from other countries to the U.N. to step in and stop this inhumane treatment, asylum seekers continue to be put into concentration camps where they are packed in so tightly not everyone can lie down at once. They are not given medical care, toothbrushes, clean clothes, showers, beds, and sometimes not even drinking water. Infants as young as a few months are ripped out of their mothers’ arms and put with other separated children, with only children a few years older to care for them, and then they are sent to foster homes with no record their parents may track to find them again.

I’m sure some of that cruelty has affected my mood too. One of my friends listened to the MIDI recording of the first movement and dubbed it, “very, very dark.”

I am concerned we are not yet angry enough as a country to respond to another attack on decency and the rule of law, so if I can stoke that a bit with my creativity, that too is a productive use of of my composing effort.

 

If you enjoyed this departure into the more political in this blog, you may also want to check out Subtle Oppression, Cultivating Empathy, Subversive Fiction, The Value of Shock, Calmly Freaking Out?, The Roots of InspirationSipping Reality, and Why do straight parents keep having gay kids?

Stranger Things Far From Home

What I learned from a movie and a TV show this week

I saw “Spider-man: Far From Home” last weekend, and I’ve been slowly making my way through the new season of “Stranger Things” on Netflix. Here are some things I learned about telling stories from them.

Spider-Man-Mysterio-Gyllenhaal-e1556281685755

London attacked by a water elemental?

For me, “Spider-man: Far From Home” made me think about subversive themes in a story (for more on this, check out my post Subversive Fiction). There were a lot of tropes that were fairly familiar about youth trusting too easily and being uncomfortable with adult responsibilities and boy finally getting the smart, pretty girl. But the themes that kept me thinking were how the screenwriters made very clear and contemporary points about people being motivated to accept falsehoods when afraid and fascists staging crises to grab power and repeating lies often enough to make people think they’re true.

It is nearly impossible not to make the connection to political dramas in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere. But the movie is insulated from becoming “too politicized” by focusing on the actions and making the proxies different enough in their details.

stranger-things-3-gang

Oh, my God! What now?

Season 3 of “Stranger Things” made its debut on Netflix this month, and the suspense is turned up even more than in previous seasons. The writers have practically perfected their formula for the series which gives different groups of characters different parts of a puzzle, and then we’re waiting to see when and how they put them together. As in previous seasons, there are two levels of bad guys–the chaotic, evil beings from another dimension and the short-sighted guys who think they can profit by opening a portal from their dimension to ours–and so we wonder whose agenda will prevail.

And every episode ends with a pretty dramatic cliffhanger (yes, even more than before). Almost every one of them leaves you with such a feeling of hopelessness, you have to keep watching the next episode to find out how in the world they are going to get out of this particular mess, because it seems unwinnable: They’re trapped in a bunker half a mile underground crawling with hostile military types. The one person who can save the day is slowly, against her will, getting co-opted by the enemy.

And in the best video game tradition, there is a Boss Battle brewing. An enemy bigger and more powerful than any in the previous seasons.

Among other stories are mysteries that slowly inveigle their way into your psyche. They tease you little by little until you are hooked. Entertainments like “Stranger Things” speed up that process, starting out with the mystery of why the magnets stopped sticking and why rats are eating fertilizer and very quickly to what happened to the lifeguard who got dragged into the abandoned steel mill.

I guess “Stranger Things 3” has made me think about the difference between a point of suspense that leaves you two or three possible resolutions and one that seems so hopeless, the need to find out what’s next is even stronger.

Diversity or Tokenism

The delicate balance between egalitarianism and shame-avoidance

I have great sympathy for casting and art directors. I do. Making sure they don’t appear to be favoring one social identifier over another is tough. The Power Rangers and Benetton are notorious examples of trying too hard:

power-rangers-nick-1014x329

The careful calculation is sometimes painful to behold: Two white actors (one male, one female) to quiet the fears of the dwindling white population that they are becoming a minority, one Asian actor, one black actor with non-kinky hair (because that would be too radical and might not fit in the helmet), and one Latino actor.

The-United-Colors-of-Benetton

For a clothing line that prides itself on its wide color palette, it seems to make sense that they would want their models to also be colorful and diverse. But going this far to show diversity screams of stagy artificiality.

Diversity versus clumping

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But when you look at groups of people in some of the more diverse settings like a community college classroom or waiting in line for a movie, there is naturally more clumping of types. One group may be all women and 70% black, 20% Latina, and 10% mixed race. Another group may be an Indian man, a Japanese man, an Irish man, a Chinese woman, and an Italian woman. We tend to clump by age, by body type, by gender, by religion, by sexuality, by level of ability (e.g., deaf people and people in wheelchairs), by race, by economic status, and a number of other descriptors.

We clump into more homogeneity because it is in our DNA to seek similar people. My favorite proof of this is a Lesley Stahl segment on the 60 Minutes TV show a few years ago on Yale’s Baby Lab.

Carefully putting together a group for maximum diversity all in one shot is what I call tokenism. It is more blatant when a cast of characters in a movie or novel is all hetero white men except for one woman, or except for one black man, or maybe except for a gay white man and an Asian woman. It is less obvious when there are only two characters, and one is black and hetero and one is white and gay. It is harder to infer tokenism when you have such a small sample.

Diversity with two

The problem with diversity in small casts is in our desire to identify with elements of characters. It is what we naturally do when we consume entertainments. In a cast of two, like the example above, the black character takes on the mantle of potentially representing all black men, and all heterosexual men.

So we try (as in the Benetton ad above) to include a couple of each demographic, so no single person is responsible for representing an entire class. It becomes almost algorithmic: Add one gay character and she’s a token. Add two gay characters and you are being diverse.

But the process of making one piece of art diverse in itself is exhausting. The better strategy is to say to yourself:

What type of character has the world (or at least my audience) seen less recently?

Serial diversity

I think of this as serial diversity. (I’ll try to come up with a better term eventually.) A sense of a diverse world doesn’t come from any one snapshot of it. It comes from multiple experiences of it.

So in my own writing, I started out with a space opera that was flirting with tokenism. The main characters were: het Euro man, het Euro woman, het Latina woman, het Korean woman, het Chinese woman, gay Euro man, het Euro woman, bi Euro man, het black man, het Native American man, het Euro man, etc. Since then I have focused mostly on making my principal characters more diverse.

My short stories have featured a het white teen boy, a disabled white man, an old white woman with dementia, a female Russian astronaut, a homeless Brazilian girl, a black albino and his transsexual starship captain, a teen boy from Bhutan, and a young Egyptian-American Muslim woman recently. My novels have featured a young asexual Latino man, a bi white man and a black lesbian, and my current work in progress has a bi, blind, and disabled man as the main character.

It is the main character or characters, I believe, that make the most difference in exposing readers to different life histories, abilities, and limitations. And in entering into the lives of protagonists different in some significant way from ourselves as an audience, we face our fears of the other and run away, or we become more aware of the commonality of all human experience.

 

If you enjoyed this particular essay, I have others on the intersection between social issues and creativity: Subtle Oppression, Subversive Fiction, Portraying the Other Gender, No More Happily Ever After, and Why do straight parents keep having gay kids? New blog posts arrive weekly, so check back again soon!

 

 

 

Subtle Oppression

life cereal

It’s hard to prove, but the effects are undeniable

Prejudice and discrimination are easy to spot when you’re denied a job you’re overqualified to do, your home loan is mysteriously denied, or anytime you’re told you don’t get something as soon as they learn your minority status. But there are more subtle ways of keeping you from equal treatment.

Consider a dress code. It seems superficial and harmless enough with an initial glance. But what if you’re a Muslim woman committed to wearing a hijab as part of her religious practice? What if you notice a prohibition about nose rings right after you pierce your nostril? What if you can’t afford the new clothes the dress code requires? Any chance for excluding you for lifestyle, religion, or economic class in there?

Consider how redlining has been legal for so long. Redlining is the practice of marking out zip codes and neighborhoods that if you live in them, you will automatically be denied a loan. The bank or other lender will make vague excuses that your application seemed too risky, but their real motivation is to make sure people of color don’t get to move into more affluent, mostly white neighborhoods.

What if your treatment could be attributed to other factors? That’s what they want you to think. Consider things as innocuous as whether as the only out homosexual in your office, you are the only one never asked to represent the company on business trips. You are encouraged to retire early, and you are the only one offered the option because the rest of the office is at least twenty years younger than you and keeps treating you like you’re fragile.

And what if you see one publication after another simply announce they wanted their ADULT fiction to be rated PG? No swearing, no violence, no sex is allowed if you want to sell your work there. How could that be discriminatory? It’s just a simple style preference, isn’t it?

That is the defense bakers have used when they’ve been asked to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The reason PG-rated adult publications are discriminatory is because they de facto exclude much of minority literature, because if many minority authors speak about their culture, it will have swearing, violence, and sex. Only a comfortable, upper-middle class, white suburban life can be described without those things. Since when do adults need to be protected from those things?

 

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if so, please check out past posts that also cover social issues facing artists: Subversive Fiction, Portraying the Other Gender, No More Happily Ever After, and Why do straight parents keep having gay kids?