I write little notes to myself in red text on the computer screen when I edit. Not only are the notes quite helpful, but they illuminate the roads I’ve gone down in my writing. I was working on this particular story right as I started reading Milan Kundera, and it was giving me a hell of a time until I read a passage in his book that began with the word “because.” For some reason, I had abandoned the word “because” out of a fear that with it I would commit the fateful error of telling over showing. Through that fear, I’d stuck myself in a mire of character actions without any way for the narrator to weigh in. And in this story, I as author needed to speak up for common sense while all the characters were lost in disconnect. Just before the point where I began to read Kundera’s Art of the Novel, I had no flipping clue how to finish the story I’d started, and because I enjoyed the process of digging myself out, I’m going to quote here some of the notes I wrote from that period.
Starting with my favorite:
“What if the studio was a tiny house on a quiet street… I could burn it down… but that is an author action, not a character action. Who is the real person in this story? Diane is the only one who acts…”
I use a lot of elipses to speak to myself. Also, I’ve had to keep myself from burning down so many short stories. I get to a certain point and think “wouldn’t it be nice if I just light it on fire so I don’t have to find an end?” What’s funny is, the story I’ve got coming up in Evil Girlfriend Media has a fire, but I set that up right from the beginning. It was a good one, too, so it will last me through quite a few more stories before I get the urge to light it all ablaze. Anyway, at this point I had two main characters who really did not make any choices of their own, and my comment on this third character, Diane, who was only in it for a small bit yet acted as the turning point, I realized I’d have to punch up the main folk’s involvement. They needed to make choices, and I started to write in the word “because” around their actions to figure out just what those choices might be.
“If you were tremendously famous for the mask you wore, and the mask became too heavy, why would you not just take it off? …because there’s no one behind the mask.”
By answering questions about the character’s actions, I realized that the plot dropped off where I strayed from their “because.” The masked woman was difficult to write for me. Her actions were illogical, and I’m kind of a Spock. When I answered her question, her actions moving toward catharsis at the end of the story all fell into place.
“If the audience knows what Larry is walking into, the story will be stronger. Don’t be so damn coy.”
I cuss at myself, too. But I’m glad this little bit was in there. This note sprang from a moment in which all the characters knew something that I as author was keeping from the reader in a misguided attempt to be clever. There’s nothing really clever about hiding ones hand behind ones back, but in type it’s sometimes hard to remember that. What’s really clever is to show all your cards, and still surprise the reader in how they fall into place. Anyone can flip a switch in a story and say that everything you read was a lie. (of course it was, fiction is all lies, that’s why they’re best at truths) But it takes brains to toss a pack of cards in the air and have them land as a model of the White House.
I’ve seen it happen, so long as you’re willing to accept that metaphor. It’s the most amazing sort of magic that fiction can pull off, and it makes Gandalf green with envy.
I do my best to avoid “I’m so clever” moments in fiction, but I do commit them from time to time. God forgive me. Nothing worse than an author getting in the way of a damn good story.
“Make the obsession palpable. Third party is keeping you from making this palpable.”
I started this story with a main character who was secondary to the action. He was witness to another’s obsession, and it insulated myself and the reader from the story. I got rid of this, made him the one with the obsession, and in doing so I was able to ditch the “I Don’t Care” mask. “I Don’t Care” is such an easy mask to wear, it’s comforting, and it keeps you from getting hurt, but in fiction it is a flipping killer. One of my favorite bits from Roald Dahl’s Matilda is when The Trunchbull is explaining how to get away with anything. You never go by halves. She was using this philosophy as a way of keeping parents from believing how terribly their children were being tortured, but it really has other applications. Going by halves leaves room for doubt, and when you are telling a story, the reader cannot doubt what you are saying. While they read, they must believe you, and if you are not passionate, and if you hide behind the words “I don’t care,” how can anyone trust you to tell a whopping good lie?
It is scary to care so much. You can get hurt that way. But sitting on the bench, too scared to ever take a chance because you might not look cool? That’s so much worse. I propose we all look foolish. It will do the world some good.