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Anne's Randomness

Progress

So it looks like this is going to be a week of "All About Anne" posts as opposed to the usual weekday categories. Since I'm not writing in Glenscar or Anosir at this precise moment, it seems better to use this time to catch you up on developments in my writing and world, rather than try to dredge up thoughts on the usual topics.
 
Tuesday I wrote about my personal definition of success, which may not match yours but hey, that's part of what makes the world fun. Today, as you may have guessed, I want to talk about progress. How can a writer know if she's progressing in her craft, getting better and better at what she does, or if she's instead fallen into bad habits?
 
Because writing is such a subjective art form, with as many different ways to define progress as there are writers, it's hard to come up with a definition that works for everyone, or even a majority of people. I tend to write dialogue-heavy stories, light on description, so progress for me could be remembering to give descriptive detail.
 
I've also begun writing longer stories as my fan fiction apprenticeship with the Dangerverse has progressed. A lot of that length is because I delve into the minds of my characters, running through their trains of thought, tracking what they want and how they plan to get it. Is this, too, progress? Or is it unnecessary, overkill, boring?
 
Here is where we hit the first of the real obstacles, because there is no single right answer to that. Some of my readers thank me for taking them through the steps of making a decision, or grieving for a loss, with my characters. Others feel bogged down and uninterested by this, and would prefer less thought and more action.
 
I believe I do this because I have a strong antipathy towards people who act without thinking, who blurt out stupid or hurtful things (though full disclosure, I'm sometimes guilty of this myself). This makes it hard for me to write scenes where this happens, because as much as I hate it in real life, it's three times as bad in my fiction.
 
That may seem nonsensical, but think about it. When someone does something thoughtless or even sets out to deliberately cause harm in the real world around me, I only have to experience that from one side.  Whoever that person is, whether it's me or someone else, I'm either perpetrator, victim, or innocent bystander, not all three.
 
But when I write such a scene in fiction, I have to be all three, and I have to be them so convincingly that my readers buy into the moment. I have to experience that cringing, breath-stopping ache, not just from one angle, but from all three, and not just once but again and again, as many times as necessary to get the scene right.
 
So. Progress for me began with writing stories where these scenes didn't happen, or only rarely. It continues with stories where it sometimes happens, but it tends to be mild and countered fairly quickly by logic and understanding. And, as much as I dislike it, it's going to have to continue into the occasional scene where tempers explode.
 
Another level of progress is learning to accept some of the things I mentioned in Tuesday's post on success. I can't appeal to everyone; some people will simply be uninterested in the stories I write, and others will try them, shrug, and say, "Well, it was okay, I guess." Even those who like my work won't always like everything I write.
 
That, like writing scenes where people are stupid, hateful, or pontificate about things they know little about, hurts me some. It's no one's fault and I would never ask people not to tell me the truth, but it still hurts me some, because my writing is a part of me, and it hurts to be rejected and turned away from, no matter how kindly it's done.
 
But I know that I do have readers who enjoy just about everything I do, who love to think and laugh and rejoice with my characters. So, to leave this blog post off on a happy note, I have news! After a couple of requests, I have now gained a physical address where you can send me snail mail, should you be so minded! Write to:
 
Anne B. Walsh
P.O. Box 22123
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
 
This address has also been added to the Contact Anne page, so that it will have a permanent home. Coming up on Sampler Saturday: the bonus story for Christmastime Is Here 2013 is finished, and Killdeer is nearing completion as well! Follow me on Twitter, @AnneBWalsh, for daily writing updates and funny bits of my life!

6 Comments to Progress:

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Geoffrey on Thursday, November 14, 2013 10:55 PM
No, Anne, you’re regressing! You declared Success on Tuesday, but now you’re only making Progress? Oh dear.

I empathize with your personal struggle to balance your writing. I have similar difficulties, though I usually go heavy on the description and light on the dialogue. Perhaps it comes from reading too much classical literature; from before stories had bucketfuls of conversation. I, too, have a hard time with writing arguments, mostly because I feel that if you reason through an issue, you either have an answer, or a set of questions you yet need answers to. I recognize that not everyone does this, and it can be quite fun to read stories driven by people who are less than logical in all things. Wasn’t that one of the themes of Star Trek? Even though Spock is always right, he’s still wrong.

To use a familiar example, what would Harry Potter have been like if he talked to the adults about his issues, rarely got moody, and discussed his feelings on occasion? As I recall, Book 5 was driven by his irrational decisions, refusal to think things all the way through, and picking fights that didn’t need to be fought. This is common throughout literature, of course.

One thing I try to do to overcome this deficiency of mine is to have my characters do something impulsively, and then figure out what about their psychological makeup caused them to do so. People are, after all, complex beings, and Reality is Unrealistic. That is to say, real people act out-of-character far more often than even loosely written fictional characters. For instance, it is a defining trait of Superman that he is in love with Lois Lane. It would be unthinkable, therefore, for him to cheat on her. But real people do cheat on their spouses. It’s not a pretty thing, and they often lie about the reasons, but if they still love their husband or wife, it’s very much OOC behavior. And it happens all the !@#$ time. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to it as character defining behavior, which puts its occurrence in fiction in a different light.)

As for delving into the psyche in prose… I find it’s hard to make it interesting and engaging. I’ve read it done poorly so many times, and it’s one of the surest ways to see a manuscript end up in the rejection pile. I think I’ll give it a go shortly with a thought in mind: Narrative Relevance. That is to say, if the decision making process is outlined in full, then like Chekov’s Gun, it must be revisited. Perhaps the basic assumptions of the decision turn out to be false and the decision needs to be reconsidered. Perhaps the character is too stubborn, neglectful, or blind to revisit it and the decision leads to disaster. Or perhaps it’s too late to change; a line has already been crossed (which might lead to a redemption arc). On the other hand, perhaps the decision can be changed on the fly during a climactic part of the story without bogging down the narrative with an explanation because it’s already been provided in sufficient detail that the reader can follow along.

Or maybe it was a bad decision to begin with, and the story continues to provide alternative reasons for it. That is, a character could describe his rationale in detail in discourse with other characters, only to have his honesty and psyche thrown into question later. It’s essentially the same if a character discusses her feelings. The more detail she provides, the more important it is to revisit them. Perhaps a similar situation arises later and she doesn’t experience the same feelings, raising a red flag for the reader. Or perhaps none of it was true. (People lie to themselves about how they really feel all the time, don’t they?)

And that’s where Love really finds a place in stories. As a motivating factor, it’s only so-so, but as a source of conflict between lovers, it’s a veritable goldmine. Let me explain. Love doesn’t mean much unless it comes with the ability to inflict pain. I don’t mean the desire to do so, but the capability. Love is knowing exactly the thing to say to hurt someone in a way they’ll never recover from, and never wanting to do so. When that thing is finally said, we have complex feelings on both sides; for the one who said it, they’ll try to rationalize why. For the one to whom it was said, they’ll blame everyone but themselves for the hurt they feel. And so we have a story with a problem that can’t be resolved just by talking it through. Ah, but you know these things already, don’t you?

So, for me, progress means writing engaging conflicts. Stories where the stakes are greater than life-or-death, where death might, in fact, be a preferable outcome for the protagonist.


And lastly, thank you for the address. Now let’s see… what to do, what to do…

Oh, and post-lastly, ooh, I can’t think of a question today. Nevermind. No, wait! Anne, what things make you happiest?
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Anne on Friday, November 15, 2013 12:03 AM
In order: Success and perfection are quite, quite different. I like your thoughts on narrative relevance, and do try to keep it in mind. People certainly do lie to themselves a lot. Love is a good source of conflict, yes, but it can be low-hanging fruit at times. When I encounter what you seem to be describing in a book I'm reading, it most often leaves me with a feeling of "All aboard the soap opera merry-go-round, where you go up and down for a while but nothing ever really changes". Those are usually the books I finish just to find out what happens, because I have come to loathe all the characters with a burning passion. As for what things make me happiest... do you mean things literally, or just what makes me happiest? I'm not terribly attached to many things as such, though I will give the little dog a scolding if he takes my bear off my bed again. For the other kind, I like cuddly cats and silly dogs, getting people to laugh (and occasionally scream and cry, though for fictional reasons only), hearing and making good music, enjoying tasty food, reading enjoyable books, and the list goes on. I'm really a fairly boring person in and of myself.


Geoffrey on Friday, November 15, 2013 10:41 AM
You're right that emotional conflict for it's own sake is dull. And while it is low hanging, it's important to master before reaching higher. When I see it poorly done it's because the pain feels fake, the characters could just talk it through, or they all seem selfish. This is not what I mean.

Also, to get the best impact, in my opinion, emotional arcs need to be paired with plot arcs. When the climax of an emotional arc meets a climax in the rising action, you often get a memorable scene.


Katie on Friday, November 15, 2013 11:02 AM
Personally, I think the way you take me through the entire though processes of the characters is the reason I can't stop reading. I feel like I know your characters so well because of the way you develop them, but I still find myself surprised by the things that happen, and wondering what will come next. I definitely prefer your style to a more action-heavy plot that leaves me wondering at the characters' motives and inner-thoughts.
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Anne on Saturday, November 16, 2013 2:47 PM
Thanks! It's comments like that which keep me going through times of self-doubt, of which I have many. It's a gift.


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