Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Inspiration - Fiction

Well, it's been over a month now since I posted my short story. Time to come to terms with the fact that no one is going to read it. I don't think that even my immediate family is reading my blog. But, enough self-pity (though self-pity is a good writerly trait, don't you think? Some of our best writers were self-pitiful).

On to what inspires me as a fiction writer. I do actually know one published novelist. My former boss, Keith Raffel, has one novel published and one in the pipeline. Keith is nine years older than me, and just got his first novel published, so that gives us all hope. His book, dot.dead, is a straightforward contemporary murder mystery, set in Silicon Valley. It's a fun read, with an engaging protagonist and a good mysterious plot. Also, a lot of nice local color. I lived in the Palo Alto area for 12 years before moving to Tucson, so it was a lot of fun to read about my old haunts.

But murder mysteries aren't really my thing, in general. I can't see myself writing one.

So what fiction do I like to read? You'll find it odd. I like little stories about small town American life. I like Garrison Keillor, Fanny Flagg, Adriana Trigliani. These are stories where generally nothing really big happens -- no murders, car chases, sinister forces of evil, possessed saint bernards, savage bio-engineered killer gorillas, etc.

All the good stories I've written are like that. I write about road trips. I write stories that, if they were made into movies, would be made into little indie films, shot by a first-time director and featuring one big star who decided to work for scale just because he/she really believed in the story.

Now, like all good nerds, I went through the fantasy/sci-fi thing. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I actually read the Lord of the Rings in its entirety when I was in High School. I read just about everything Zalazney wrote. I read all those strange Fritz Leiber short stories. I read the requisite amount of Azimov and Heinlein and Crichton.

But my attempts to write fantasy have always fallen flat. It always feels forced. Because it is forced.

What I really like these days in that sort of realm are the things that Douglas Adams wrote. And I like the stuff by his variouis imitators, like Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin. I've been trying to slog through a theoretically hilarious book by Tom Holt, called Who's Afraid of Beowulf. The book has all the right ingredients but it's undercooked or overcooked or something.

If I could just decide to write a readable fantasy novel, I would love to write something like The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocolypse. Something imaginative and off-the-wall, and that makes the reader laugh out loud every couple of pages or so. I might even be capable of something like that. I don't think I'm capable of writing a great sword-and-sorcery epic.

You're still reading? That's impressive. I'd have wandered off to something more interesting by now. You must really like me. But I'm sure you're also wondering where I'm going with all of this...


JohnH said...

I'm not exactly a brilliant writer myself, but I will try to comment upon your story, assuming the one you are referring to is the one in the "Name the Short Story Contest" post.

Overall: Very nice idea, nice ending, the story definitely has dramatic punch. I don't think the general events need to be changed, the story easily passes the "So what?" test.

I did notice, however, a good number of stylistic problems, which is what I am going to focus on. This is not an exhaustive list, but is generally indicative. Here goes:

I see a lot of showing, as opposed to telling, in the story. When you write something like:

"His deep-set, sad eyes always seemed to look on you with sympathy, regardless of his actual mood – a good feature in a bartender."

This is the kind of thing that should be written out, not stated. Make the reader feel this by describing the look, not telling him what he thinks of it. Readers balk at that kind of thing.

You do it a little better in the next paragraph in fact:

"Each night after the last customer left, Simon Bear would have his first drink of the day. Then he’d lock up, and climb up the stairs behind the bar to his small attic bedroom, and serve himself one drink after another until blessed sleep finally took him."

This is an important section, and could stand to be longer, and written with lots more description. But I don't like the word "blessed" there, it overplays your hand. We're meant to see, ourselves, that Simon Bear is depressed and hides it until he's in private. Saying "blessed" there tells us what to think, when we can see it well enough already.

"Getting to Bear’s Bar by land involved a long bumpy drive on a dirt road, but plenty of customers found that it was worth the journey."

Again, this is telling, instead of showing. This could perhaps be replaced with a description of the bar, packed with people, but in the descriptions you could note that they were from places miles distant. That way, the reader could get the information you want to impart indirectly.

"Straight ahead, glittering brightly in the summer, leaden and foreboding in the fall, a translucent shelf of ice in the winter, was the lake. Always different, always worth seeing."

Yet another example here. Instead of saying "Always different, always worth seeing," if you're going to describe this, you should expend some more words and write it out. But if you did that, then what is really a throwaway detail that doesn't greatly affect the story will be given too much importance, so I'd suggest removing this bit entirely.

"But they were both very lonely men, and they were secretly glad of each other’s company."

I'd take out everything from "they" to "and", and maybe a bit more as well. Again again, this should be written out, show us their friendship through description!

There's a lot more to say but I don't want to gum up the comments too much. A couple minor technical points:

When writing a character's literal thoughts and you don't want to use quotes, it is usually a good idea to use italics.

A plural possessive usually has a trailing apostrophe:
Bad: "Stone's" Good: "Stones'"


Commenting on the rest of the post:

Fantasy is easy to write, but difficult to write well. I tend to get into periods where fantasy I used to like becomes unreadable to me. (Discworld, which is very much like fantasy Hitchhiker's Guide, was like that.)

But there are -some- fantasy stories that manage to persist. Perhaps the best of the lot is The Little Prince, which is as close to a perfect work as has ever been written I think.

I actually don't think it is possible to write a very good fantasy story by following a template. If one sets out to write a Tolkienesque story, he is not really writing effective fantasy, which should instead come from somewhere deep inside.

Ah, I have more to say but have spent too long on this. Maybe more later. Feel free to email (address is in my profile) if you have questions.

capmango said...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful critique. I think you are spot-on with the showing/telling problem; other writer friends have pointed out the weakness in other writings of mine. It stems from impatience on my part -- I want to get the info out and move on with the story.

ABCGi said...

Hey just visiting from your great interview over at RogueTemple.

Great blog and your Seven Day RogueLike is good fun.

I have added your blog to my daily reads...


JohnH said...

Concerning showing and telling, keep in mind that it is perfectly fine to do the latter instead of the former when doing something like NaNoWriMo, which, if you write in a hurried impatience like that, will be fun for you I think.

The key is, once done, to realize that the task has only started. Few stories are great emerging from the initial scrawling process. I like to think of story writing as like exploring a fractal: some bits can be more closely examined, and through repeated iterations you can "increase the resolution" of that part of the story, so to speak.

But I've been worrying a bit that this wasn't the story we were supposed to look at? I did a cursory scan of the RSS feed and didn't find another?

capmango said...

Hi John!
The Thunder Bay story is the story I wanted you to look at. It's the only one of my stories that I have put up on the web. I have some other stories, but somehow I've got the idea in my head that with a little more work I could actually sell them, so I haven't uploaded them for everyone to see.