Monday, March 9, 2009

Magnetic Pull

"I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."
- William Faulkner

I love this quote, though I don't necessarily agree with it (and Faulkner himself might not agree with it completely, as there's a wee taste here of a tongue in a cheek). It does make me think, though, about what it is that draws me to particular forms.

I'm no poet. And it's not a matter of failure, but rather a simple lack of desire or need. While I occasionally read poetry I have no real inclination to write it. I've written a few in the past (well in the past), but almost all were for Creative Writing courses. An assignment, a deadline, a task at hand. I enjoy and appreciate the language of poetry, how experience and emotion can be condensed into bare images, given shape through the most minimal of words. But it doesn't call to me. It doesn't stick in my head, doesn't persist past the moment.

Fiction, for me, has always had a certain magnetism. Something irresistable, a steep sort of gravity which I can't escape. I'm compelled. A fascination, a glamour... a bewitchment with the form.

I like short stories. I like their density, their ability to capture and articulate an idea. I like the idea of a reader being left to extrapolate beyond the parameters of the narrative. We see only a little, we're given clues, subtle hints... the world is out there, yet to be explored. It's a taste, a tease... I enjoy reading short stories, and I enjoy writing them. It's satisfying to sit for a day or two, typing, and then look down at something complete, something I can twist and turn in my hands. How does the light catch it this way? Or maybe this way? I can file and cut and polish and then I have something small and sparkly to admire, maybe to share, maybe to gift to a reader or two.

Yet short stories are not the fictional form that engenders my obsession. Oh, yes. Novels. Let me write odes to thee, my love, my novels read and written.

What is it, though, that creates this fierce attraction? More than anything I love to read novels. Poetry and short stories, yes. Non-fiction, yes. Memoir, my new and growing friend, yes. But novels... I think I like the journey of a novel. It's not about an instant, a moment, about something ephemeral and transitory, but rather it's built up slowly around me, a slow articulation, a meditation in words.

It was a novel, of course, that started it all. The Hobbit was the first, with others to follow. A romance, a passion. It's the novel I'm obsessed with, both reading and writing them. Studying them, poking them with sharp sticks to see if I can discern how they work, what makes them tick, how the little hand is connected to the big hand.

Writing a novel, for me, is writing towards something, writing to find something. It's an exploration, a movement from desire to understanding. I like how hard it is, how long it takes. It's a marathon instead of a sprint. You need to measure yourself, you need patience and will. You need to get lost inside your own head to survive a novel. It's probably going to hurt, you might want to stop... but you have to take another step and another step and then one more. You can't see the finish line... but you know it's there. You're racing against yourself. And somewhere on that journey, lost inside your head, you will find something important. You will see your limbs moving and that movement will be a revelation.

So what about you? What draws you to the forms you choose? Why do you write it? Any secret yearnings? Maybe an epic in iambic pentameter? Lay it out there...


Ms Kitty said...

I love books, I love good stories. I love the way plots unfold and characters interact.

What I don't get out of a lot of novels is a sense emotional involvement. Was the author really involved with the characters? Or did they just slap a couple of stereotypes together?

I try to write with a measure of finesse (But can I spell it?) in characterization and plotting. The challenge is to hit that emotional key note: tension, stress, fear, uncertainty, compassion or love then make it resonate with the reader.

I don't think I've done it yet, but I'm going to get there someday.

Ink said...

Ms. Kitty,

Do you prefer novels then? They do allow that time to build up a story, to push it to that emotional key note. I like the slow build of novels, but a short story that really nails it... that's pretty cool, too.

Wanu said...

I think it's a flow and inspiration thing. I really like short story writing, but it isn't my main interest (that being novels).

But poetry. I'm really not a poet, but I was thoroughly caught up in an idea, a set of sound bytes really, not so long ago. They definitely weren't any good for a novel, and there wasn't enough material for a short story, so I threw it down as a poem. It came out absolutely gushing with author enthusiasm and I felt compelled to send it off. I haven't got a reply yet, but I had a look at the poem again today, and I still really like it. I've got my fingers crossed on that. So I think it's just an inspiration thing, and fitting a medium to the inspiration.

I also think one of my stories is probably better fodder for a novel, but I'm refusing to let it extend much beyond 10k words. Which has been difficult. I think it's just letting an idea out to its full potential. Sometimes, that potential may lie in just a few verses, while other times the long haul will do it more justice.

Ink said...

Does your brain tend to one form or another, Wanu? For me, I tend to get novel ideas. Big ideas, things with scope, with lots of character arc. Not so much the little ideas that fit a short story. Though, oddly, I've had a bunch of good short story ideas in the last few months, which is unusual for me. But I find my brain tends to push toward the novel form as well... though whether that's something inherent or something to do with my greater familiarity with the novel form I don't know.

Ms Kitty said...

Currently I'm working on novels. I like the idea of character development and having a lot of room to work with.

I did short stories for a lot of years, but my heart isn't in them.

I've got a few that I really like, not flash fiction, but longer pieces.

It is all about hitting that emotional keynote that will resonant with the reader.

I'm experimenting with ways to get the tension between the characters on different levels. I think I did pretty well with the first novel. The second one isn't going as well, yet.

It's a learning process.

Bookworm1605 said...

Oh yeah, I've got a bunch of poems I've written. Oddly, they all start out the same way:

Roses are red, violets are blue...

Maybe one day I'll share em with you guys.

I love the novel and the short story. Up to this point, though, the novel has terrified me. I have a constantly evolving outline for my first attempt, I'm just too scared to start it. So I keep myself busy with short stories. I think I have subconsciously set the goal of publishing a short before I invest the huge amount of time and energy necessary to birth a novel.

As to the form, I'd say I definitely love the novel. A short story is a one night stand where a novel is a relationship. Read a novel that is wonderfully written and all is bliss. Read one that builds you up and then lets you down in the end and...well, it's about as bad as catching your girlfriend behind the bleachers with your best friend back in high school. Not pretty.

But speaking of form, you know there's a lot of weird stuff out there these days. Don't get me wrong, I say 'weird' with a wistful fondness, but it's still weird. It seems to me that the forms of poetry and short stories are merging--or perhaps that many short stories are being written with poetic flair. Is that a fair statment?

Wanu said...

I think that is a fair statement, Book, although lit fic (or at least the really flowery and purple stuff) has always been somewhere in that crossover ballpark.

I think... for me, there's a laziness which gives me affection for the short form of story. It's much easier to alter a character or change events in a short story than it is to get involved in a major rewrite on a section of novel.

Point in case, actually: Bulletproof Scooter. It's already had various incarnations, but there's a big problem with the way I've crammed two different stories into the available space. It doesn't work, and needs a hefty, sweeping rewrite across a number of sections. That's a mountainous task. Doable, no doubt, but when there are other ideas clamouring, and I've committed myself to whacking out another humor novel in the first half of 2009, it's very easy to put BPS on a shelf.

Conversely, the short that has given me more problems than any other story, ever, is one Engineer's Solution (or Desperate Measures as I called it on Roving). I couldn't even estimate, at this stage, how many times I've majorly altered the story. But because it's a short, it's easy to come back to and get hacking. So I quite often do. It's really coming along, too, it's now much stronger than it was when I posted it. Still not finished tho. And there's a sort of cautionary thing in this: I've spent more than six months (on and off) trying to nail a short story! Unless it wins awards and stuff (hey, fingers crossed!) that investment in time will never be worth it, in any terms outside of practise and growing as a craftsman.

My 'only write the exciting bits' creed sits well with novel writing. I get stuck and stall, like everyone else, but find it easy to move on. Just cut the scene I'm stuck with and start the next one I want to write. That lends itself very well to novel writing because on the first edit, it's easy to pick up what's needed (if anything) to bind the progression together.

I don't think my brain is more suited to one form over another. Ideally, I want to be churning out a novel every six months. I'm on target for that, with BPS and Prep B brought up to reasonable spec last year, and now Making of a Hero growing up quite steadily.

Making of a Hero is a good example to look at in terms of fitting a form to the idea. Someone said something about a 'honey badger' being on the telly, and I had this crazy visual of a massive armadillo who'd stop at nothing to get its hands on a pot of honey. I committed a crazy scene to prose, but then ideas formed on top of that scene, and now there's a novel forming.

I think that's all it is, really, just knowing whether the characters and plot are better suited to one form or the other. Or, at least, being comfortable with the choice you make (bein' as a novel could theoretically be produced from any premise or idea).

Which brings me to a major point, Book, I'm looking at you. I've read that most authors don't really get into their stride until their sixth novel. ie that the first five are generally not of publishing standard, and prohibitively difficult to polish to that standard.

You should get started, dude!

I guess MoaH is my fifth, but I count it as third because the first two were total noobosity. The phrase, 'So packed with rookie mistakes as to be beyond salvage' fits my first attempt perfectly.

You'll come into the novel writing game with more proficiency than that because your writing is already very effective. So I wouldn't worry about time and energy. Just get cracking!

Ink said...

Do you ever get frustrated with that urge to one form or another?

The reason I ask is that I recently had a pretty cool story idea. The problem is 1) it's a science fiction idea, and 2) I have this overwhelming feeling that it's a novel idea rather than short story idea. It would be hard to contain in a short story. So, novel... except I don't really write sci-fi. I mean, I'm sure I could crank out one short story. But a novel? I mean, I never have sci-fi ideas, and may never have another one again, so writing such a novel seems a strange thing to do from a professional point of view. I'm not sure I want to devote a year or two of my life to it. But it is a cool idea, and it would be fun to use... Conundrum! The little bugger!

Ink said...

Oh, and Book, Wanu is right - get cracking! Seriously, though, you're good. Yeah, you'll make mistakes, but I'm making mistakes all the time and I have a number of manuscripts under my belt. You're more ready to write your first than I was, and I ended up turning out something that was passable (well, as long as you like 900 pound books). Nothing to fear but fear itself. And giant squid mothers. And ravenous hordes of chipmunks. But that's a given, of course.

Wanu said...

Hey, Ink.

Crikey, what a conundrum. It's horrible trying to weigh up the pros and cons of that one. Ideally, I think you should write what comes, but you're right about the whole genre thing. You're gonna want to build a loyal following, and curve balls might not help with that. Mind you, you never know...

I don't know what the 'right' answer is, but my intuitive answer is to write the thing, and then decide what it is. If it comes out as a novella or something, then that'd be fair enough, eh? If it comes out as a novel, maybe tag it with a pseudonym?

I don't know, all speculation here may well be harmful to your career!

But... hang on... aren't you working on a mainstream novel? On the back of aiming up a fantasy novel for the market? Would a sci-fi offering disrupt your flow, or enhance it? I think there are authors who write in more than one genre. Maybe that's kinda your thing?

Ms Kitty said...

"Most writers don't hit their stride until their sixth novel..." Oh my Gosh! That's where I'm at. I can only hope.

I think this is a good time to throw down the gauntlet to you fellas: Why don't you polish up a novel for next year's ABNA? It's on, they don't care what country you live in, just that the novel is unpublished.

Granted, I have no idea where any of the Five novels I know of are going to place. I'd be delighted to think that all five of us make it.

You have a year to polish up or write a 50k to 100k novel?

How about it?

Ink said...

Yeah, I think I'm kind of a genre switcher. Which is a bad thing, probably, as far as career goes. I don't think it's really what an agent or editor wants to hear. So I write my Lit stuff... and my fantasy stuff. And maybe I can get by with a pseudonym. But then throw in Sci-fi too? That's a lot of balls in the air to juggle. Hmmmm...

Maybe I'll force the sci-fi thing into a short story. Where's that hammer? I think fantasy and Lit. novels are probably enough for now. The Lit novel's done, and in between revision stages (and probably the best thing I've ever written). I have a couple pretty serious Fantasy novel ideas percolating too... and I have my old Lit novel that I want to revise too, the one that had an agent. So I ain't hurting for stuff to write.

Ms Kitty, as for your idea... it's interesting. Except I'm really expecting to be hitting a bunch of agents before then. I find the ABNA stuff intriguing... but I'm wary. I'm not really into game playing sort of stuff, like Authonomy. Guess I'm a traditionalist. :) Stick it in the hands of a professional and see what they say. It is intriguing, though...

And for the whole readiness thing... I doubt it's any real number of books or words. I think it's a matter of A) talent, and B) a certain amount of time and effort on developing the craft. You have to get some words in. What the mumber is... who knows. One of the old sci-fi greats always said you had to write a million bad words to get to the good ones. A million is a lot, though I'm passed that, so I should be seeing some results. :) But really I doubt it has to be a million. But it does have to be some... I think you do have to put some good words in before you get anywhere. And I'm guessing that the more serious you take those initial words the faster your progress will be.

Bookworm1605 said...

I don't know what ABNA is but I do like the idea of a challenge. Maybe I have been hiding from the novel and a toss of the gauntlet is just what I need. I've got four shorts out for consideration and I'm finishing up a fairly radical rewrite of "I Stand Alone" so that'll give me five to bounce around whilst I make the attempt...

Not to stray to far from the topic of form, I do have a question regarding the novel. I have two different plans for producing 90,000 words of material. The first is the traditional format. You guys probably don't remember it but "A Matter of Time" is my first love when it comes to an idea for a novel. I've figured out how to tone down some of the physics challenges and so it's my first choice. But I've also got two follow-ups to "Fade to Blue" plotted out and the thought occurred to me that if I could write nine or ten 7500 word short stories that were self contained but also a continuing story, I might be able to produce a novel. Assimov's Foundation series started out that way.

But as they say, that was then and this is now. My question is, will that work in today's publishing environment? Or are most editors looking for fully formed, single unit novels?

Ink said...

I'm guessing they're looking for single unit novels. But the real key is that they're always looking for great writing. Great writing always gets looked at, or so I'm told. I usually say write what calls to you. Write that idea that's really pushing at you, because a novel's usually a long haul. A normal novel structure is probably safer... but safer isn't always the best.

Which one was A Matter of Time?

Bookworm1605 said...

A Matter of Time... It was the first 'story' I ever dreamed up. Maybe you remember, it had interstellar travel and black holes intermigled with Alice in Wonderland and Alice in chains..? Jen and Samael et al..? It went through several incarnations when I first joined FM. I think I wrote three chapters and everytime it got critted I went and did a total rewrite. Eventually I laid it aside in favor of shorts. Perhaps it's time to pick it back up...

Ink said...

Gotcha. Yup, I remember that one. I remember liking the idea a lot, that the dark lord type was her boyfriend separted by time... and I remember liking the sort of surrealism mixed with the sci-fantasy stuff, and thinking it was a cool hybrid.

(Though I should also mention that you Fade To Blue world is one that seems really suited for a novel. Lots of room for action and adventure... but also for personal tensions and larger thematic issues)

Damn, I'm a good fence-sitter...

Anonymous said...

I write novels because most everything else I've done has been total crap. Pretty simple, really :D

Ink said...

Lol, genji, that does solve the problem! I definitely think there are some people who are simply naturals at one form or another. I've seen people who can write long stuff but a short would kill them. And others who can out these little gems in words... and yet couldn't make a novel work.

Wanu said...

Book, you made mention of, 'the huge amount of time and energy necessary to birth a novel.'

Most writers can whack out a thousand words per hour, especially if they're in the zone and 'following' the action, rather than generating it.

Which means, if you wrote for three hours per day you'd have a 90k novel down within a month.

If you wrote every other day, or moved twice as slowly, you'd still have a big book in two months.

The 'energy and investment' really kicks in during editing, and then for selling the thing. Writing it out in the first place isn't that big of a deal.