Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Two Cents

I posed a question in the last post--"What is the job of a fiction writer?"--but had to let the question sit for a couple days. Blame it on the day job. Nearly 90 hours in a week and a half, and I'm tuckered out. Slept most of Sunday, and now I'm disoriented. Ever get that way?

Anyway, back to the point.

In my small corner of the world, there's been discussion about the role of a Christian writer, but that was countered with the goals of secular writers, and then there was the question, "Why are we even talking about this?" Good question.

Several years ago, I used to meet for weekly critique sessions with a writer almost four decades older than I am, and with far different goals with his fiction. He felt the compulsion of time. He had stories to tell, and he wanted me to help him tell them. Unfortunately, though we could respect each other's perspective, ability, and chosen genre, we were not good writing buddies. That, and we each had issues.

When I asked him why all his main characters were alcoholic loners, he said, "Maybe I'll start writing about something else when I'm done writing about this."

So, perhaps some writers use writing as therapy, a way to work through fictional versions of themselves, their problems, their questions, and perhaps find an answer they can use in the real world.

This same writer, however, said he had the ability to write from the perspective of a character whose beliefs ran counter to his own, and he showed me a sample. The character was me, but the tone--the same as the tone in much of his other work--was bitter, snarky, superior, and the perspective he assigned me missed me by a mile.

Which gives rise to another question: How divorced can a writer be from his work? I don't think artists of any stripe can be distanced from their work. They're invested in it. Their fingerprints, sweat, blood, and DNA are all over it. How it's formed is a direct result of how they think, reason, put puzzles together, pull threads apart--and why.

"But with distance comes objectivity!"

Objectivity doesn't necessarily require distance. It just requires honesty. An objective writer can look at his work and see the flaws, the ones that go beyond goofed-up grammar or misspelled words. He can see the repetition of traits that make characters flat and predictable (boring); the gaping holes in the plot; the misplaced or missing details; the rambling descriptions of minutiae that don't move the story forward; the authorial intrusions that overlay the story with his own social, political, religious, and philosophical beliefs. He can recognize when his fiction moves from entertainment to sermon.

I think I'm gonna hang this on my wall: "Thou shalt not promise a novel but deliver a personal manifesto."

I believe fiction not only can but should heal, inform, entertain, reveal, tell the truth, challenge, confront, intrigue, but the writer's overarching goal should be the telling of a story.

This post isn't as focused as I intended when I started it, but that's probably because I'm still unfocused (only been awake a little less than an hour). Got an opinion? State it. I'm gonna go get some more rest.


Strider said...

I'm not a writer at all...but I think that if I was going to write a fictional book, it would entail my passion. For instance, my blog, for the most part, is all about "Christ in you, the hope of glory." So my fictional writing would have this as a theme. If I wrote additional books, I would write on the same thing.....but his it from a different angle...again, much like I do my message of Christ in you. Anyway, just a thought...and about as close as I am going to get to writing a book is my blog! Have a great week.

Phy said...

I must lodge a complaint. These questions are far too interesting, and are interfering with my actual responsibilities. I started a furious reply on Friday, but had to actually, you know, /work./ That reply is likely still on my computer at the office. And now, while you're sleeping, I should be asleep as well!

If somebody is writing the part of you and ends up writing themselves, that's either lazy or simple lack of vision. The writer should have the ability to see life from the shoes of another.

I like the idea of telling a story first and letting any 'message' overflow from there organically. If the Message outweighs Story, I'm more the likely to fall out of the project and go read something else. But if a truth presents itself from the text, from the story, without any apparent agenda on the part of the writer, well, that's the magic, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

You commented once about how my own personality could be present in both the light and dark characters in my fiction.
I think that we, as writers, do deal with our bogeymen through the characters in our novels, novellas, poetry, and short stories.
The poem in the story I'm reworking now was actually part of a larger poem that I'd written during a very troubled time, years ago. I changed a few words, but the content is very much the same. Now it haunts my character, pointing the way to her past, and providing a guide to the future's quest.
I've always felt a convincing story was one that included your valid emotions.
As always, thanks for the writing advice!

The Texican said...

We all write about ourselves regardless of the precautions we take not to do so. Just as our bodies betray us with physical cues and tics when we lie, our writing betrays us with the words we use. Others who know us can see the threads. On the other hand when an agent or editor asks an author to go outside the parameters of his established mores, we can also see the artificialness of the inserted passages. I once knew a writer who submitted a manuscript set in a time when explicit sexual content would not have been talked about. He was asked to create and write an explicit sexual scene. He did. It sounded like something from Playboy magazine. However, the manuscript was accepted and the book was published. I thought the story was great and his writing was very good until it came to the sexual scene. At that point it just appeared like a contrived insert into a story from a period where such explicitness was not accepted. It was out of place. The timing seemed off, and even though it could have and may have happened just the way he wrote it, it slammed me into the feeling the historical perspective had changed. I see a lot of social commentary in action novels these days. I get the same suspicious feeling in the back of my mind when I read it. I suspect it is the bias of the Publishing magnates and not the author taking precedence. This happens even more when books are adapted for the screen. The movie maker sometimes makes judgements on the authors intentions and like your friend reads them entirely wrong. So much for verisimilitude. Pappy


Strider - I don't know that I can write something that doesn't somehow reflect my faith. It permeates everything. Even in the tales I'm writing now, where the protagonists behave in ways they shouldn't, there is a reckoning coming, whether it be in the court or in the soul.

Phy - Complaints are only accepted on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then only by appointment. (laugh)

I agree: We writers should -- must -- cultivate the ability to look at matters from alternate viewpoints. It's the only way we can write about them with any authenticity, and it's the only way our characters will be distinct from one another.

And, by the way, I'm stealing your last paragraph from this comment, too, to use in my next post. (Hey. I write about pirates; a little thieving is just research.)

Jade - Valid emotions are something I am always striving to include in my stories, and the striving comes in confronting my own emotions, an often uncomfortable prospect. I think some writers think fiction is a convenient veil; in truth, it is most effective when the veil is torn away.

Tex - You wrote, "We all write about ourselves regardless of the precautions we take not to do so," to which I say amen. It's funny when preliminary readers sent back comments on an earlier draft of a manuscript, and each one had a speculation as to which character in the novel was me (or, in some cases, themselves). In truth, all of them are me, and none of them--pieces of me, pieces of those I've known or observed, all get tossed into the mix.

You also wrote this: "I see a lot of social commentary in action novels these days. I get the same suspicious feeling in the back of my mind when I read it. I suspect it is the bias of the Publishing magnates and not the author taking precedence."

We may have had this conversation already, but that kind of bias is why I quit proofreading for a (now defunct) publisher. They're agenda was present in every book, whether or not that agenda fit or fed the story. As good as the writing and the stories were, I was sick of the shoe-horned point of view.

As for anachronisms in modern literature, aside from the extraneous sex scenes, one thing that just fries my fritters is the notion that certain curse words were freely used in all eras of human history, and therefore must be used in current versions of historical fiction. My question is this: What's the point? What's the author trying to prove? That he's an idiot, or that he doesn't own a thesaurus?

Pardon me. (ahem) My animosity was showing.