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August 15th, 2007

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10:55 am - "It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin . . ."
Some more thoughts on writing and story, in the wake of Deathly Hallows (but no spoilers here).

Storytelling is both a craft and a way of life, although that's not really what I'm writing about here.

In the sense of the craft, I see two types of writing that prevail in our culture: idea stories, and stories of experience. (These are not lines drawn between genres, generally, though modern "literary" novels are usually of the later kind.)

Idea stories are the ones that present us with something wondrous, something really cool to think about, something to make us marvel or contemplate or debate. Science fiction, especially "hard" scifi like Asimov or Neal Stephenson, tends to fall into this category. So does true myth and fairy tales--George MacDonald's "The Light Princess" would be nothing without the idea of the princess who is cursed to not be bound by gravity (in any sense of the word). Some psychological or philosophical fiction (Dostoevsky, anyone?) could also be called "idea" stories, although these tend to cross into the other type.

That would be what I think of as experiential stories: the ones that tell us "what it would be like" to live through a situation or live in a different society or live with a disability or disease or hardship (or joy!). Teen or YA "problem" books are the most obvious example: they encourage teens by showing them characters figuring out how to live with various life issues. Retold fairy tales (Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen) are often like this, too, bringing the stories closer to our own experience--or our experiences closer to the fairy tales.

And, of course, we have fan fiction, which is often purely this second type: what was going through Jack's mind during that conversation with Daniel in "Abyss"? What happened between these two scenes to cause the Doctor to change his mind?

I write a lot of the second type of story. My first response is always to want to climb inside a character's skull, see a situation from a different point of view. I enjoy reading some of those stories, and most of my fanfic falls into the same category (even stuff with some external action, like "Sua Sponte").

Otoh, I love reading idea stories--fantasy and scifi are two of my favorite genres. And when I do get really interesting ideas for a story, that's something I want to write and easily get excited about working on.

Maybe it's that duality within myself that sometimes bothers me. I often feel that experiential stories are worthless unless they're part of an idea story. Or, at least, that being gifted in experiential storytelling isn't nearly as brilliant as being gifted in sheer story.

Many of the books I have most loved, the ones that have had the most influence on my life, have somehow managed to be both. Lewis, Perelandra; LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea; L'Engle, A Wind in the Door; Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion.

J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter series.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

These don't just have both ideas and the sense of experiential reality, though I would argue both for the effect they have had on myself and other readers. Each of these has a further quality--a sense that here, in this story, something of the best of what the author has to say has been distilled and set forth. Tolkien once said, of LotR: "It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other."

Experiential writing is good for the kind of work I want to do in television. Idea writing would be good if I wanted to write genre TV, or create my own shows.

But sometimes I'm overcome by the longing to produce my own masterpiece. Something that could only come out of my own self, in my own words, though I have no idea what that would look like right now. I want to give whatever I have to give, to the world, to others. I want to write my LotR, my HP.

I long to write, in my own life's blood, a story to change the world.

Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(7 lit candles | Light a candle)


[User Picture]
Date:August 15th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
Just write. If it is there, it will come. If not, you will still have done good work. But the one thing that absolutely insures that a writer will wreck his or her talent is to set out to write the Great Novel.
[User Picture]
Date:August 16th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)
LOL. True, indeed. I've no delusions about that--I gave up my attempt at fantasy writing (in Tolkien's footsteps, you know) years ago.
[User Picture]
Date:August 15th, 2007 11:26 pm (UTC)
I agree with you that stories that do both Ideas and Experiences well are the best. I have read good ones that limit themselves to one concept or the other, but the bad ones usually fall into being entirely one-sided.

I don't object to your dreams (in fact, I share them myself--what writer doesn't? :), but I caution you: if you're waiting for the One Great Story to happen, you're likely to freeze yourself and not write anything, because it'll never be good enough.

Right now I have some Ideas, but I'm painfully aware of the lack of Experiences to match them, and thus I'm unwilling to write those Ideas. Instead, I write a bunch of smaller ideas (when I have time to write these days, that is :), and I figure that if God wants me to write the Ideas, He'll orchestrate the right set of personal experiences, insights, concepts, and critical mental mass to get the Story going. And if He doesn't, that's okay. It's just my job to keep collecting Ideas and even Experiences, keep my eyes open, be patient, and keep listening...and not be a snob with myself. I should still write the "little" things. And besides, I never know: sometimes the things I least intend to have an impact end up being the things that readers respond to most. So it's really not in my control. Kind of exciting! :)
[User Picture]
Date:August 16th, 2007 12:15 am (UTC)
I think I'm missing something here... I'm not quite getting the difference between idea and experiential stories. How is dealing with living on a ship that encircles the sun (extreme idea story?) so much different than dealing with ones mother falling for a blind waiter half her age (extreme experiential story)? In both cases, it's the setup driving the plot.

I contrast these to stories in which the plot drives the setup. Or, in the extreme case, the climax drives the plot which drives the setup. This is wherein smarm lives :-) And romance and h/c. I want characters A and B to get to the point where they're doing X or figuring out Y about each other, and the work of the story is in figuring out how to get them there.

Huh, maybe this is why, for the first time in weeks, I'm pretty happy about the state of my writing, even though I haven't written a usable word in quite a while (having decided to throw out what I'd done on the most recent "Summer of 1999" bit). I have the Jasons rattling around taking up my experiential energy; a Blair-meets-Rodney story prompted by kerravonsen taking up my plot-drives-setup energy (and replacing my "Summer of 1999" toss-out); and a SGA missing scene that's letting me live in its climax.

- Helen
[User Picture]
Date:August 16th, 2007 02:11 am (UTC)
a Blair-meets-Rodney story prompted by kerravonsen taking up my plot-drives-setup energy (and replacing my "Summer of 1999" toss-out)

Yay! 8-)
[User Picture]
Date:August 16th, 2007 02:09 am (UTC)
I sort of see what you're getting at, though I'm not sure if I'd divide it that way. What you call experiential is probably what I'd call character-driven, which I usually see as a dichotomy with plot-driven, but I wouldn't say that plot-driven is the same as an Idea story. Excuse me while I think aloud...

An Idea can be speculative ("what if...") which is the root of most SF, or thematic -- I'd put "The Light Princess" in the thematic category myself... but maybe I do that because I think "The Light Princess" is character-driven rather than plot-driven. There are a number of hard-SF stories that I consider to be particularly Idea stories, and they have a few characteristics in common:
- a tendency to be weak in characterisation
- related to this, a tendency to be plot-driven
- a huge emphasis on world-building as a platform to display the Idea

Some examples: "Permutation City" by Greg Egan, "Dragon's Egg" by Robert L. Forward, "Rendezvous With Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke, "Ringworld" by Larry Niven, even "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells.

Or maybe it's a difference between internal or external Ideas? I mean, we have external ideas like "What is the nature of Reality?", "What kind of life might develop on a neutron star?", "What might future society be like?". So what are internal Ideas? Things about Honour and Love and Trust and Seriousness and Sorrow -- the human condition, so to speak. Thematic ideas.

But maybe I'm mistaken and it doesn't fit like that.
[User Picture]
Date:August 20th, 2007 08:29 pm (UTC)
I like the dichotomy of idea vs. experience writing, but I think that as with the character-driven/plot-driven dichotomy (which I guess is sort of similar, if you squint) the best books fit into both categories, as you say above. Those are the kinds of stories I like best, as well.

But sometimes I'm overcome by the longing to produce my own masterpiece. Something that could only come out of my own self, in my own words, though I have no idea what that would look like right now.

Right there with you. But I don't think you have to worry too much about putting yourself into your writing in the way you're talking about, creating a work that expresses your essential self. That's going to bleed in whether you want it to or not. You can't create something out of yourself and not have it reflect some part of you. (Which can be depressing, really, there's a few stories on my hard-drive that I would rather blame on someone else's essential self.) We'll write our masterpieces, just wait. But write while you're waiting. *grin*

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