Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pattern Recognition

Hey, it's always great to crib a title from a bestseller, right? But seriously, I wanted to expand a little on the last post. We talked about form, about poetry, short stories and novels... but now I wanted to stretch that out to genre, stretch it out to our own unique stories. What draws you to the kind of stories you write? Where do they come from?

For me, things started with fantasy so I'll start there. Part of why I write fantasy is just because I love a good bit of imagination. Something magical... why not? I think I liked the physicality of fantasy, too. In an increasingly mechanized and abstract world I loved the directness of fantasy. You got a guy, a horse, a sword. You got some bloke to chop. It was stuff you could do with your own hands. I was an adventuresome kid. I never met a stick that wasn't really a gun or a sword (or a ray blaster, of course). Oh, okay, I liked violence. Battles! Epic fantasy seemed a natural choice.

The interesting thing is that those childhood choices often hold a certain resonance, vibrating at a frequency we recognize even decades later. They've worn a synaptic channel, and we're quick to recognize specific patterns. It's not something I think I'll ever escape (even if I wanted to). Now, what I want from fantasy has changed as I've aged... but I think part of the desire to still live within the old patterns of the fantastic derives from their familiarity, from the pitch of that resonating frequency. Those stories, for good or ill, have helped shape who I am, and so I'm bound, in a sense, to always work within that form, to always have my thoughts shaped within that framework. I'm like one of Pavlov's dogs: draw a sword and I start salivating.

There are other paths and patterns, however. Reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest when I was eighteen opened new and strange vistas. Reading it, I thought: "Holy shit, you can do this? You're allowed to do this in a story? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Reading Wallace was an awakening to an entirely new idea of what a story was, flipping my old ideas over and giving 'em a good kicking. I became fascinated not just with the content of a story, but its nature, its function. The tricks of the post-modernists caught my eye, stories that deconstruct themselves, narratives about narratives...

Yet tricks can grow tiring. I wanted something more essential than misdirection. What is a story trying to do? What do I see as its purpose? Maybe a story is there simply to peel open a human moment. My love of literary stories comes from this, I think. A fascination with psychology, a fascination with people. A desire to peel open something human and see how it works, as if beyond the words were a pile of little gears and levers I could discover and diagram. A story, for me, became a moment of exploration, a chance not merely to find an epiphany but to build one up out of scratch, stacking words together until the right shape was found, the right function, all the little wheels whirring into synchronicity.

I had to love magical realism, of course. How could I not love it when the fantastic leaked into the real and pried open human dilemmas? It was a natural fit, really. What better to explore than the unexplained and inexplicable? Kafka, Marquez, Calvino, Lethem, Chabon, Murakami... strange and unique, and yet the patterns were familiar, two seemingly disparate frequencies humming into sudden harmony.

I remember when my daughter first started learning to paint (she's an old hand now at four) and how excited she was when she realized she could swipe a brush through one paint to make one colour, and through another paint to make another colour. And then one day she realized that she could mix the paints to get an entirely different colour... and her face lit up. I think that's the expression I have, sometimes, when those frequencies align and a piece of the fantastic breaks free and dreams itself into the reality of a human moment.

So, those are my frequencies. What are yours? And how'd they come about?


Wanu said...

A lot of ideas which surfaced in previous discussions seem to converge here, and I'm feeling ripe to release speculations which've been on my mind lately.

As writers we have a very interesting choice, more easily seen in film: naturalistic acting Vs the cool stuff. You know what I mean, the cool stuff would be Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Van Helsing... etc. in which the characters move and talk like... well, in all honestly, not like normal human beings, but more like super-status massively focused... things... from another planet.

Whereas naturalistic would be those indie house films that never get anywhere. Or, perhaps in the crossover are the British films, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diaries. Perhaps more markedly there'd be Meet Joe Black, during which the enchanting purity of the direction, acting and dialogue totally transports the viewer, mostly by virtue of inhuman eye contact, expressions, and dialogue... and yet, it has a very human quality to it; the characters start out very human -- Brad Pitt giggles with a woman he's never met in a coffee house, and she peers at him, all challenging and a little shy. It starts out almost naturalistic, then takes off into the cool, and I think that adds a lot to the movie.

In authorial terms, we face similar crosspaths. Almost as a matter of course, we take out all the 'er..' and 'ummm...' that would be found in natural speech and replace it with something more direct, something more sexy and/or engaging for the reader. Our characters don't walk around with a head full of stream-of-consciousness talking to themselves, they're always aware of the most important thing at the time, and are reacting to it. The boringness of true reality kinda forces our hand to stray into the cool forms of presentation in order to keep the reader engaged... or does it?

Fantasy, the way I see it, represents those cool ideals, the meaningful dialogue, the black Vs white, the morality of humankind, that which rolls up its sleeves and unsheathes a sword when offended by the evil and underhanded methods of a powerful villain.

In lit-fic and more mainstream work, however, I expect to see more the of the naturalistic character work. I want to see characters who are conflicted, whose fears reflect mine, or atleast realistic social fears. You know, most people wouldn't stand up at a huge gathering and tell everyone else why they're wrong. The fantasy hero, I'd expect them to do that. The lit fic hero, no, I'd expect to see them stalled and cowed and go about a bit of beta-social behaviour, get networking and convincing other people one-on-one that what they're thinking is the correct way to go. They'd show their individual potency in a very human way.

So I do think we make this choice: are the characters in this novel (or short story) going to be super-cool and totally in the zone at any given time? Or are they going to be naturalistic, neurotic... will nerves and social threat mean a lot to them?

This is where I think we genre-slide, and I do it myself. I'm split c30:70 between mainstream and humor. Despite that, my latest ideas are spec fic. I say 'spec fic' deliberately, because whereas some might identify my most recent ideas as sci-fi, I see them more as character driven stories set in a slightly futuristic environment. There's, like, one, maybe two, things different/more advanced things in the future worlds I'm envisioning, but nowhere near (in my mind) enough to make these ideas fully fledged sci-fi. Think of the film Gattaca -- a very human drama played out in a futuristic setting which while the setting defines the context of that drama, is very much background. I've got a helluva lot less differences than that in the two stories I'm thinking about between 'now and then' so 'spec fic' is my bracket for them.

Same-same, I think, Ink... you're writing fantasy, lit fic, and now sci-fi. I think the genres are purely circumstantial, purely observational. The worlds, and the degree of 'naturalness' in the characters will dictate the genre, rather than your idea of 'what I write'.

If you see what I mean?

I don't think you can be a self respecting author if you never write naturalistic characters. There's something amiss with that. But I also think that you can't be a master craftsman in terms of writing if you never make a cool character really shine.

You're all going to hate this, but the brains behind the WWE and TNA are pretty good at story telling. They know how to set up baddies, and goodies, and even ante heroes. You know, there will be a major attack on a good guy by the baddies, and he'll say, 'I'll get you back on Monday night' or whatever. Come Monday night, the crowd is expecting justice to be served, but the good guy gets lynched again and beaten to a bloody pulp by five bad guys.... and it goes on for two months, before finally, before an ecstatic crowd, the good guy beats the crap out of everyone and stands tall at the end.

You're gonna be all like, 'wanu, dude, this isn't sophisticated story telling!' But I've gotta say, what we've been told all along - "create your character, chase him up a tree, throw stones at him, see what he does, and then throw something a lot heavier..."

I watched Van Helsing tonight, and the stones never stop... he starts out with memory loss, has to fight demons and monsters... everyone hates him... villagers want to lynch him... woman sees him as a status threat and hates him... he discovers his enemy is immortal... he discovers his enemy knows more about him that he does himself... he cannot get away from the long reach of this enemy (and select wives).... he gets bitten by a werewolf!... You know, the stones are constant, absolutely constant, and the effect is the same as those two months of good-guy bashing in the wrestling. You wanna see this guy kick some A!

So, yeah, I think choosing genre is a nonsense choice. Choosing characters, setting, and challenge are the only real choices, and we make them for reader engagement. And we make them for reader engagement, I think, mainly because we've already got something to say on the subject. A premise. We're storytellers!

That's what I think are the important factors in all of this.

I know this makes it difficult for us to line ourselves up with the market, but the market shifts. Ink, you asked if I ever get frustrated with the forms... no, not at all. But I'm lucky, in many senses, and one of them is that I only ever have a couple of ideas on the go. I get, I dunno, four ideas every six months -- one novel idea and three short stories. I say 'lucky' because that's all I can cope with! Seriously. I'd be gutted to have too many, or too few ideas, so I'm amazingly happpy with this plodding pace in terms of ideas and inspiration.

Book, you ask if a different kind of formula would go down well in the market... Nobody can say. Imagine if you were exchanging novel critique with someone and they sent you a copy of Acid House. How would you critique that? Wouldn't you be full of cautionary advice about what the market may or may not accept? I think we need to take these fears and speculations out of the realm of theory and really road test them because that's the only way to find out.

If you think the stories and the full work is engaging and worth reading then so will other people. It's only the numbers, and the PR work that makes the difference there. Not the format of the novel in question.

Man, I've yabbered loads!

Bookworm1605 said...

Genre? That's what you're talking about, right? (looks around for soap box)
What is genre, exactly? What good does it do us to classify ourselves or our writing in such a way?
If you look at sites like FM there are tons of posts that read something like, "What genre is my story?" or "What genre do I write?"
What responses do those posts generate? Inevitably, something like, "Don't worry about it, just write what you want to write and let the agents/editors/publishers put you where they want you for marketing purposes. Yet, even on those very sites, we are pigeon-holed before we get started. When we post a story on Roving we are asked to state our genre. Discussion boards are broken down by genre and even some crit groups are genre specific. So, does it matter—or not?
Back in the day you had a few broad categories. Romance. Mystery. Sci-fi was hugely encompassing. Humor was a subcategory. Anything that couldn't be strictly defined as something else was lumped into Mainstream. Nowadays there are squillions of subgenres. And by the way, who decides what is a subgenre vs a full fledged genre? Do subgenres, if they keep their nose to the grindstone and work hard, have a shot at one day dropping that degrading prefix and graduating to being a full fledged genre?
But I digress.
I find genre labels…limiting at best, pretentious at worst. Fantasy is a great example of a genre nameplate that's gotten a lot smaller than it should be. These days the word fantasy, when applied to a kind of writing, conjures up Tolkeinish imagery, as if all fantasy stories must contain elves and dragons and questing cadres out to save worlds if only they can find some token magical artifact. Oh, I'm sorry, that's HIGH fantasy. (there's that pretentious thing I was talking about)
And speaking of that… (I'll pause in a moment of lucidity and apologize in advance to my friends Ink and Wanu for the following rant) …what the &%$# is Literary fiction?
1. pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, esp. those classed as literature: literary history.
2. pertaining to authorship: literary style.
3. versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
4. engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
5. characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.
6. preferring books to actual experience; bookish.

Labeling one story as Literary and another as Genre just feels condescending. Like saying, "My writing is classed as literature, wheras your genre story is…well, do I really have to say it?"
OK, I'll relax. I'm sorry if that offends some of you Lit fic folks. In my defense I did just drink a bunch of coffee and eat four Krispy Kreme donughts. So, to a certain extent, I cannot be held responsible for my words.
Personally, I love the proliferation of genre and subgenre labels as I see it as having a diluting effect on the whole idea of categorizing works. Like Wanu, I lean towards calling everything Fiction or Speculative Fiction.
As far as my own writing goes, there are several ideas I absolutely love and therefore usually include in my stories despite them usually not being found together in more traditional works. I love the uncertain potentials of the future so most of my stories are set in Sci-fi universes. But the spiritual world is very real to me so I like to have elements probably more comfortable in Fantasy, also. I love to have spaceships and demons coexist, for example. And werewolves with aliens. I want to explore what mankind can accomplish externally through Science fiction, but at the same time, experience the metaphysical inner universe, too.
And I love monsters.
So I guess my writing is like those fusion restaurants you see popping up. I write Thai/French/Mexican, or whatever. Or just call it Weird Menace and be done with it.

Ink said...

Book, I mostly agree with you. I often think the only important thing is that we're telling stories, and that's the only real division that matters. We're writing stories. The rest, in a sense, is marketing. But, as a bookseller, I recognize the need (and the annoyance) of breaking down things into genres. The only real function is to make it easy for readers to find the kind of stories they like by grouping them according to certain similarities. Yet there are books for which I find it difficult to determine a shelving strategy. And those are often quite interesting books. But for practicality's sake they have to go somewhere.

Yet that marketing has an impact (though whether it's positive or not I don't know). As readers we often gravitate to certain sections, artificial though they may be. For example, I've read, over the years, a whole bloody lot of books that would go in that High Fantasy category. Now, is that label artistically bogus? Maybe. Yet the fact that I've drawn so much reading material from that artificially divided subset has ramifications for me as a writer. It's created patterns and familiarities, unconscious paths which shape thoughts and ideas. I can't but admit to their influence (whether I like it or not).

I think that's why in the original post I mentioned genre and then added the idea of moving on to our own specific stories. Not merely genre, but our own unique stories. Whether it's magical realism or weird menace... where does it come from? What draws you to that kind of story? Influence or imagination?

I think part of the problem with labels is status. We start attaching value to the labels rather than to the specific stories. You know, a Banks or Ballard can write some sci-fi stories... but then once they're recognized as really "good" we can call them "literary". It's silly: it's valuing an abstract label over the particular reality of a story.

I find it interesting, sometimes, because I write "genre" and I write "literary" (and odd crosses of the two), and I often do that writing at work, and so customers will sometimes see that and ask what I'm writing. What's curious is the responses depending on what I'm writing, the sort of evaluations unconsciously being made by the people who ask. Sometimes I can see it in their faces... hear it in the tone of their voice... You see how different people judge the genres and thus the writer.

Anyway, to me it always comes down to story. All you have to do is tell an interesting story, and there are lots of ways to do that, and lots of forms to do it in. And that's what I find sort of fascinating: where do people draw their specific stories from? Why one kind of story and not another? Or, maybe a better question is: What do you want a story you write to do? What sort of purpose do you have for it once it goes out into the world? said...

re: categories.

Writers find labels condescending. Readers find them massive timesavers. Between the two extremes you have to compromise to some degree. I don't mind writing what would be labeled "fantasy" as long as people don't get upset that there are no elves in it. If they have that much of a preconception already, then there's probably precious little I can do on my end to disabuse them of such short-sightedness.