Tag Archive | art

When something’s wrong (with your story)

culturecat.com

“Just let me finish this scene…”

I made the decision to be a writer at a very early age, not long after asking my mother where books came from. Throughout my elementary school years, whenever we moved to a new town, one of the first things I would do when we visited the local public library was find out whether the library had a subscription to The Writer magazine, and/or whether they had any copies of The Writer’s Handbook, which was a book published yearly featuring a selection of articles from a year’s worth the the magazine, plus a listing of the addresses and submission guidelines for lots of different publishers.

I did it!

I did it!

I read a lot of articles and several books about the craft of fiction writing during my formative years. I internalized a lot of the lessons of those articles, often without remembering the context of where I learned them…

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That isn’t what artistic expression means

A fancy wedding cake.

Can you tell from the artistic expression in this cake what the baker’s religious beliefs are?

I have a lot of friends who are artists. And several of them have, at one time or another, sold sketches at sci fi/fantasy/comic/furry/et cetera conventions. And I’ve heard horror stories from them of people asking them to draw disturbing or offensive things. Usually they’ll say, “No, I won’t do that” or “I can’t draw that,” and then offer to draw something else instead. And I support their right to do that.

But the people who are trying to claim that a bakery refusing to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding or a reception is the same sort of refusal are being more than a bit disingenuous. The judge in the Colorado case does a great job of explaining why this argument (and others) don’t hold up. I’ll quote the most salient part:

The undisputed evidence is that Phillips categorically refused to prepare a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding before there was any discussion about what the cake would look like. Phillips was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. After being refused, Complainants immediately left the shop. For all Phillips knew at the time, Complainants might have wanted a nondescript cake that would have been suitable for consumption at any wedding. Therefore, Respondents’ claim that they refused to provide a cake because it would convey a message supporting same-sex marriage is specious. —Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer

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It’s not your decision

I lot of people were sharing a blog post last week by Gavin Aung Than called “BILL WATTERSON: A cartoonist’s advice.” Watterson is the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, and Than being a web cartoonist, has long admired him. I read someone else’s re-blog of the text and tweeted it out to my followers. I didn’t realize that the text was only part of the post. He also drew a comic in Bill Watterson’s style, using excerpts for a commencement speech Watterson gave way back in 1990.

It’s an awesome cartoon and you should go look at it.

In the accompanying post, Than quotes some things Watterson wrote by way of introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

As the blog was linked and re-linked, I saw a few people, some of them Big-ish Name types, who seemed to be angry about Watterson’s decision, made years ago, never to license Calvin and Hobbes for any merchandising. There were never any Hobbes dolls on store shelves, never any Calvin and Hobbes lunch boxes or action figures. Just the comic strips, and various books collecting those strips together.

Watterson stopped writing and drawing the strip years ago, and because he refused to license either the characters or the strip, that means that Calvin and Hobbes came to an end.

The angry people take issue with Watterson’s decision (made many years ago) to eschew merchandising deals. If I follow their logic, they think it is hypocritical of Watterson not to license his property because the book collections are a form of merchandising. If he was willing to publish books, then why object to anything else?

I have several responses to that, but I’ll try to keep it to three:

1. Reprinting is not merchandising. The original strip was visual art and text published in newspapers. The books were collections of the exact same visual art and text. Republishing your original art exactly as it was is not the same thing as letting someone else make action figures which may include things you would have never had the characters use, for instance.

When this was pointed out, I saw at least one commentary complain bitterly about the fact that a certain number of unlicensed window clings are out there, showing Calvin pissing on a corporate logo, or praying in front of a cross. “And that’s all we’ve got!” Unlicensed things will happen whether Watterson licensed the characters or not. That is happening outside of his control, and it seems more than a bit illogical to blame him for that.

But the heart of the objection is revealed in that “that’s all we’ve got!” In other words, they’re angry because they can’t buy those hypothetical lunchboxes or dolls. This gets me to the second point, in which I will paraphrase Neil Gaiman:

2. Bill Watterson is not our bitch. Neil Gaiman famously explained to a fan who was complaining about George R.R. Martin not writing the next Game of Thrones novel as soon as the fan wanted that he isn’t entitled to complain. To translate Neil’s argument here: the people are complaining about Watterson’s decision as if their reading of the strip and/or buying the books constituted a contract: they bought the books, and now Watterson is obligated to do everything in his power to create (or allow to be created) things that they want.

Bill Watterson doesn’t owe us anything. While he was still creating the script, he did his best to tell us an engaging story. That is the only obligation any artist has to their audience: to do their best. He created characters that millions of people loved, and he told stories about them that millions of people enjoyed. How can you complain about that?

3. Bill Watterson’s life is his to live as he chooses. We don’t get to dictate what project he undertakes or what goals he pursues. He chose to end the story of Calvin and Hobbes while it was still doing well, because he didn’t want the quality of the stories to degrade, as has happened with other series which continued too long. In doing that, he was still fulfilling the only obligation he had: he was doing his best. He knew that continuing the story would not be his best. So he stopped.

We can disagree with his choice. We can be disappointed that there isn’t another Calvin and Hobbes strip, or a Calvin and Hobbes movie, or whatever. But we aren’t entitled to begrudge his choice.

You liked his work? You are free to re-read it. You want something new? There are artists out there creating new stuff. Go find something you like, and support a new artist or writer or singer or dancer or something.

I would usually at this point proceed to advise, “if you can’t find something you like, maybe you need to try creating something of your own, not fan art or fan fiction, but something that’s yours.”

Except the sorts of people who feel as entitled as these complainers do, they need to work out their overblown entitlement issues before they can create anything worth our time and attention.

Not the opposite of truth

When I was 18 and a member of an evangelical touring choir, we were on a weekend retreat. We’d spent the day rehearsing, having a Bible study or two, and otherwise prepping for an upcoming tour. Of course, there was also time to socialize and otherwise get to know each other. And somehow one of those conversations turned into one of the guys asking me and the other sci fi geek why we liked reading lies.

I think my first response was to talk about the value of imagining what might be possible. I thought his beef was with science fiction specifically, but it soon became clear that he thought all fiction—including things such as Romeo and Juliet—were immoral collections of lies.

“If it isn’t a true story, then it’s a lie; and we shouldn’t listen to lies!”

I called his attention to parables in the Bible, and he became offended. The Bible is true, every single word, he insisted.

“But Jesus told parables. They are made up stories to illustrate a deeper truth,” I argued.

“No,” he said. “Jesus knows everything that has happened and will happen to all the millions of people who ever lived. And he told true stories that had happened.”

I just had to shake my head and walk away. As my great-grandpa, Shorty, was fond of saying, you can’t talk sense with someone who hasn’t got any.

I was reminded of this recently when a writer made a joke about writers and politicians, and how they both tell lies for a living. I’ve always cringed when writers referred to what we do as lying, because it isn’t.

Oxford’s definition of lie begins: “an act of instance of lying; an intentional false statement; an untruth; something that deceives; an imposture.” And if you look up imposture, it’s “a willful and fraudulent deception.”

Some people might say that “fraudulent deception” is a redundant term, but they’re wrong. A lie is intended to mislead or otherwise betray your trust. A story doesn’t do that.

A story may consist of a completely fabricated series of events happening to totally imaginary people, but for a story to work there must be at least a grain of Truth in it. When I create characters in a tale, they won’t resonate with the reader unless they are believable, and a storyteller can’t make them believable without drawing on true things about human nature.

When I tell a story, I am not trying to delude you into believing something that will harm you, or steal from you, or otherwise enrich myself by diminishing you. When I tell a story, I am trying to enrich both of us. I hope, in the process of hearing/reading my tale, that you experience some happiness, and perhaps have an insight or two. I hope that I will experience the joy of creating something and sharing it with you.

This doesn’t mean that when I tell a story I start off with a message that I want to convince you of. I have, foolishly, written some tales like that, and have always regretted it.

The best stories, instead, come from a place of wonder and curiosity. Sometimes, such as in one of the collaborative projects I’ve been involved with, it’s reading someone else’s story and having one of the characters in the tale pop up in my imagination telling me what happened next. Sometimes it’s walking down the street, listening to music, and seeing something on the ground that makes me ask, “How did that get there?” Sometimes it’s two characters springing to life in my head and arguing about something.

I don’t know what alchemy happens in my subconscious to create stories. I do know that when I’m writing the first draft, one of my motivations is to discover how it ends. Sometimes I think I know how it’s going to end when I start. And sometimes I’m even right, but I seldom know exactly how I’m going to get to that ending when I do. Other times I know very precisely how it ends, and all of my writing work is trying to figure out where the story starts, and then how do the characters get to that ending.

It’s exploring and figuring out all mixed up. I often learn something or find myself looking at something which I already knew in a new way during the course of finishing the story. And when everything falls into place I experience a moment of joy. That moment of joy is something which a storyteller feels compelled to share. Which is why we tell the story, or rewrite it until it’s ready to publish, or otherwise put the story out there.

Of course every writer dreams of the day when he can live off his storytelling. If someone is willing to pay me for a story, I will take the money. But hoping to be paid for a job well done is not about taking from the reader. What I hope has happened is that I’ve given them an experience which they enjoyed, found value in, and that they think is well worth the time and expense.

And as a reader, when you pick up a book, or open a web page, or sit down to listen to a storyteller, you are asking the author to tell you a story. You know, going in, that what he or she tells you will not be factually correct and the people she or he describes are not actual specific persons who did those exact things. You know it’s a story. You want the author to make you believe in the story for a little while. You’ve agreed to go on that journey of discovery, together. If it’s a story you enjoy, if it is a story that moves you, if it is a story that made you laugh, or root for one of the characters, or cry when one of them was hurt, then the story contained some kind of truth.

And that isn’t being deceitful. It isn’t manipulating. It sure as heck is not lying.

The Joi of Ponies

A gold lamé rag doll pony

Gold Dust Applejack, from Equestria Rags.

Yes, I’ve already posted a con report. Plus a couple of other blog posts related to the convention. But I always have more to say, and in this case there are some photos I still want to put up.

I’ve mentioned before my friend, Joi, who makes these fun rag doll ponies. She makes them from scraps. Her rules are that she only uses fabric from scrap bins, remainder piles, and thrift stores. So she finds fabric and says, “Oh, that would make an interesting Twilight Sparkle,” or what-have-you. She makes ponies based on characters in the series, or on original characters (by way of commission), and she makes ponies based on other things. I’ve seen her make a pony version of Carl Sagan, the classic Roman poet Virgil, Neil Gaiman’s Death, or the Mars Curiosity Rover. And she sells them online at Equestria Rags.

Cropped picture of prototype pony doll.

The Mayor Mare pony by Joi.

The first pony I bought from her wasn’t for me. It was a pony version of Mayor Mare from the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series. I had to plead a bit, because it was one of her early models where she was still figuring out how to make ponies, so she hadn’t started selling them, yet, and hadn’t planned to offer it for sale. But I really wanted to give it as a present to my husband, and I talked her into it.

A rag doll pony version of Carl Sagan.

A pony version of Carl Sagan that Joi made for Jared for his birthday.

We’ve bought more ponies since.

A few weeks before the convention, she posted pictures online of a new pony she had just finished: Applejack made from gold lamé-style fabric.

Of the characters on the show, Applejack is my favorite. Or most-favorite, since I’m the kind of person who always winds up with about five or forty favorite characters in any book or series that I get into. Anyway, of course I wanted to buy Applejack in shiny, shiny gold! Who wouldn’t?

But she was one of the ponies Joi was making explicitly for the convention. To be a successful vendor at any convention, you have to have a variety of stock. Since these are handmade (hand cut, hand stitched, hand painted, et cetera), each one is a serious investment in time. Since she makes them from scraps, that means it is very unlikely she’ll be able to make multiple ponies exactly the same.

I wanted that gold Applejack. But I also wanted her to have a successful sales experience at the con. So I had to wait until the convention to buy her, and technically I had to wait until the Dealer’s Room opened.

Another Derpy Hooves doll, with squeaker!

Squeaky Derpy was tempting me all day.

I had planned to just stand in front of her table starting a few minutes before the room opened (since I would be inside setting up my own table), just waiting there with money to hand her. This was before we discovered that we were at adjacent tables. Because of where we were, getting in and out from behind our table meant climbing over other people, so it would have been a bit awkward. At the two minutes ’til ten a.m. mark, I asked her if she was going to make me go to the other side of the table. She laughed and said we could just do the exchange now.

So for the rest of the day I had my golden Applejack on my table as a second mascot and to show folks. I had to tell several people she wasn’t for sale, but that Joi had lots of other ponies right there, and she takes commissions.

While sitting at my table, getting some writing done and occasionally selling buttons and pony toys to people, I kept watching a cute version of Derpy Hooves (a supporting character from the cartoon series) that had a squeaker. The squeaky fruit bats and ponies that Joi had were very popular. People kept squeezing them to show their friends while deciding which one to buy. I had already abused my position as a Vendor to buy one of her ponies out from under customers. And she was selling well. I figure the more people who buy her things and tell their friends, the more business she’ll get online, right?

A collection of the rag doll ponies.

Ponies I’ve gotten from Joi: Bedtime Derpy in the back, then (l to r): Gold Dust Applejack, Mayor Mare, Pinkie Pie, Gift Applejack, and Squeaky Derpy.

Michael and I also already own a lot of plushies: scores of teddy bears, tigers, otters, ponies, and so on. We didn’t really need more, right? But when I asked Michael in the evening whether it would be okay for me to buy another pony to take up room around the house, he said fine. So the second morning of the con, when I saw that Squeaky Derpy was still there, I asked if I could buy her. Which meant I had two Derpies as mascots on the table Saturday.

It’s an addiction, I know. But I ain’t going to rehab! (And these are just the ones I’ve acquired. My husband also has several!)

Is it worth the outrage?

Another corner of the internet is boiling over. Linking to it serves no purpose. I already wasted too much time trying to figure out what everyone is so upset about—because the guess I made when I read the first outraged post seems to be the only one that makes sense.

Resentment is an ugly thing. As the oft-quoted proverb says, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.” It’s toxic and self-destruction and does no good to anyone.

This goes doubly true when one is an artist of any type who spends any time at all ranting and raging about how shallow, fake, and undeserving another (more well-known) artist is. The only people who don’t see right through your jealousy are other resentful people.

Every minute you spend seething is a minute you aren’t spending on your own art. You’re never going to get any of those minutes back. So stop trying to explain how untalented that person is. Stop pointing to examples of how bad their work is. Stop thinking up clever ways to insult the people who like the other person’s work.

None of that does anyone any good, least of all you.

If you don’t like someone’s work, don’t look at/read/listen to/share it. If you think there’s too much crap in the world, stop griping and make something that isn’t crap.

There are things worth getting outraged over. I do it all the time. It’s okay to be angry about discrimination, or greed, or oppression. Those things cause actual harm to other people. Pointing out the problem may get some help to those who have been hurt. Pointing out the problem may persuade some people to change their minds and reduce the amount of bigotry and hatred and suffering in the world.

No one is harmed by a bad poem. To what little extent bad art can diminish joy or entice people to do bad things (often a very dubious claim), ranting about it just spreads the bad stuff to more people. The exact opposite of making the world a better place.

Let it go.

Go make something better. Go live something better. Go be something better.

Part and parcel

A pop musician or movie star gets arrested for driving under the influence and being in possession of an illegal controlled substance. When he or she is sentenced to nothing more than some hours of community service, there may be a bit of an outcry from the public, but thousands still attend the concerts, buy the music, see the movies.

If questioned, the fans might claim that you have to separate the art from the artist. They’re more likely to simply say, “Yeah, but I love the music/movie.” But it’s the same argument. Things that an artist does in their real life has nothing to do with the quality of product itself. Just as it would be inappropriate to claim that a painting is less than worthy of appreciation because the artist happens to be a member of a race other than the majority, a particular piece of art should stand upon its own merits, alone.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t argue that the celebrity doesn’t deserve special treatment before the law. We can compare the punishment given to the celebrity to those typically given to non-celebrities charged with the same crime. We can point out that this prominent person was given a punishment at the very lowest end of the first-offenders sentencing range, even though this is their fifth or sixth or twentieth run-in with the law over substance abuse issues.

We can demand that the special treatment stop. Yes, maybe that movie we’ve been waiting for will have to be delayed (or more likely, made with a different actor), but crimes and irresponsible actions should have consequences, and sometimes those consequences impact people other than the perpetrator.

The aforementioned situation is pretty clear, and not likely to draw a lot of argument on the principles.

It gets less black and white if the actor, musician, or artist is arrested for assault, or worse. How much that changes our perception of his or her work depends upon the nature of the crimes and the nature of their work. It may become difficult to listen to a singer crooning love songs when you know he has been convicted multiple times of domestic abuse against multiple partners, for instance.

Painting is an infinitely minute part of my personality.—Salvador Dali

So far our hypotheticals have been about what an artist does during aspects of their lives that would otherwise be private. What happens when it happens on the stage? Say, for instance, that you’re a C- or D-list singer-songwriter who, early in your career, made statements indicating you were lesbian, and for a couple of decades your fanbase has been predominately lesbian, and you’ve continued to cater to that fanbase even though in your private life you’ve married a conservation fundamentalist Christian man and joined an evangelical church.

And then one night, on stage in a city that most of the world equates with gay people, in between songs you start going on a long, screaming rant about how gay marriage is going to destroy the world, how decriminalizing abortion is the signal of the collapse of civilization, and screaming at the audience members who start walking out that “God hates fags!

I don’t think anybody would argue that other venues you were scheduled to appear at are within their rights to cancel your shows. Politics aside, no one wants to deal with all those angry customers.

Issuing statements afterward that it was meant to be ironic (yet another assault on that poor, abused, misunderstood word), or taken out of context, afterward isn’t going to undo the damage. Particularly with the full video available on the internet and it is quite clear the the context is only hate, hate, more hate, and crazy.

And you can insist you have freedom of speech all you want. Freedom of speech means that you can say what you want without intrference from the government. It doesn’t mean freedom from people being so offended that they choose to stop listening to and buying your music. It doesn’t mean freedom from being criticized. It doesn’t mean freedom from being seen to be a hateful hypocrit whose career is based almost entirely on milking an ambiguous statement that you might be a member of a group of people you despise. Nor does it mean freedom from being labeled a self-loathing closet case in addition to the hypocrit charge.

Assaulting your audience and essentially admitting that you’ve been scamming them for years is another case where things are pretty black and white. There is no reason to separate the art from the artist, because the art is an inherent part of the crime the artist committed.

While I think that Ms Shocked’s tirade was deplorable and revealed that she is a reprehensible, malicious, vulgar louse deserving of our scorn, that wasn’t her biggest crime.

The most awful thing she has done is to produce all that disingenuous music. It is a sin to be a hateful bigot. It is a bigger sin to intentionally produce crap that you don’t believe and call in art.

The dust of daily life

A number of years ago a reader wrote in to tell how much they had enjoyed a specific story I’d written, which was very flattering. Unfortunately, he also said he was happy that I had returned to writing something “more realistic.”

Now, since the story he was praising was a science fiction murder mystery set 1500 years in the future, and my detective was a genetically engineered lioness, I was more than a bit curious about what, exactly, he thought was so much more realistic about it than anything else I had written. And so, perhaps foolishly, I wrote back to ask.

His reply was a long, polite, and extremely thoughtful email. The first story of mine that he recalled reading had been co-written with two of my friends. It was an epic action adventure tale about the crew of a cargo ship who discover that the containers of farming equipment they have brought into port are actually full of weapons intended for a local revolutionary army. The crew is soon running from both the law and the terrorists. Not surprisingly there is more than one gunfight and a lot of people die. The story includes a lot of grim moments.

He loved it.

Then he cited several more things I had written, all of which he categorized as “light and fluffy,” which he didn’t like. Since one of the stories involved an astronomical disaster in which an entire inhabited planet is destroyed, and another one was a murder mystery, I was a little confused as to why he considered them light and fluffy. Fortunately, the rest of his email explained it.

All of those stories, he wrote, had an unmistakeable air of optimism about them. They generally had happy endings, for instance. He disliked such stories because in reality, he said, nothing good ever lasts, people fail far more often than they succeed, and bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it.

I had more than a few quibbles with what he said, but there was one thing I knew he was right about: my stories probably do all have an underlying thread of hope. I realized a long time ago that a fundamental part of my temperament is an unshakeable certainty that there is no problem that can’t be solved. Worse than that, there’s no problem that I couldn’t solve if only I had the time and the resources. However much I may know, intellectually, that lots of problems are unresolvable, at a deep, emotional level I seem to be incapable of accepting that.

It’s not that I set out to prove that with any of my stories. The dichotomy between optimism and pessimism is usually the furthest thing from my mind when I’m working on any given tale. However, since a hopefully arrogant perspective is a fundamental part of my personality, it will always color things I write. Because, no matter what the goal of a particular story, painting, song, or other piece of art is, no matter what topic the artist is tackling, no matter what things he or she may have the characters say or do in the story, some aspects of the artist’s core beliefs will manifest in the art.

It’s a not that it’s a conscious decision on an artist’s part. These core beliefs are seldom significant plot points, for instance. We are certainly capable of writing stories (or songs or movies or plays or comics) that seem to argue persuasively against our core beliefs. The specific story which started this conversation with this reader has prompted other readers to write me to argue about completely different things which they felt were “the message” of the story simply because one of the main characters espouses a particular belief or philosophy in the dialog, for instance.

The type of core belief I’m talking about informs how an artist sees the world. In some works these things manifest most prominently in minor aspects of the work rather than the major theme. I suspect that is why my story about the disaster which kills one billion people came across as light and fluffy to this guy, even though I thought it ended on an ominous, rather than hopeful, note. There are probably aspects of the ways some of the characters go about trying to figure out what happened that provided some hint of a glimmer of hope. I’m guessing.

Because these core beliefs inform and color the way a creative person sees everything, it is impossible to completely separate a work of art from the artist who created it.

A work of art is more than the person who made it. And in an ideal world, a work of art should be judged on its own merits, without regard to who made it, or to other things which that person made. All humans, artists and audience alike, fall short of our ideals.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. —Pablo Picasso

I thanked the reader for explaining. I said I was sorry he didn’t enjoy some of my stories, and that I hoped he would occasionally enjoy more of my stories in the future. But I suspected he wouldn’t, because I could see that we had diametrically opposed perspectives on the world. And even though I have written plenty of tales since then which have included things I think are far grimmer than anything that was in the two stories he liked, I also know that the glimmer of hope I always believe will be there is bound to continue cropping up in my work.

I myself had found writers and artists whose work, while technically good, even excellent, just rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes I was able to put my finger on why they did so, but many times not.

Art should move us. Art should also challenge us. I don’t think that we should always agree with everything a piece of art appears to be saying, any more than we should demand that an artist agrees with all of our opinions. But challenging art should engage us in a re-examination of our beliefs, or prompt us to see things from a new perspective. It should act as a lantern illuminating different paths which we may or may not choose to follow.

Sometimes the way that a particular piece of art challenges us does not wash the dust of daily life from our souls; it hammers us down and grinds our souls into the dust. And no one should feel obligated to submit to such hammering.

Break neck

I just finished Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden series, Cold Days, and it was a wild roller coaster ride, as they always are.

The structure of a Dresden novel is pretty simple: open with the classic “into pot, already boiling,” then keep turning up the heat, throwing ever more dangerous/painful/insurmountable problems at the protagonist, raising the stakes again, and again, until a final couple of battles, and a solution that you feel you should have seen coming, but usually didn’t (or if you did, you hoped you were wrong).

They’re fun reads. And it’s a good story-telling method with a long history. Most people meet Freytag’s Pyramid in beginning creative writing classes. Gustav Freytag developed the pyramid to illustrate a classic Greek five-act play. Few modern stories follow his pattern, collapsing several of his stages together. The basic outline: protagonist confronts problem, struggles with it through a series of events of rising dramatic tension, which comes to a head, then is resolved, and the reader gets some sense of closure.

The Dresden stories take a high octane action adventure approach to the story, with the escalation of the stakes happening faster and faster. It’s kind of like being strapped to a missle, and not knowing for certain where you’re going, and whether everything will blow up when you get there.

I’ve written a few novella- and novellete-length stories using that break neck pace, and it’s kind of fun. I’ve not successfully pulled it off in a novel, yet. In a novel you need several subplots, and I like giving the reader that sense of closure on each one. That means some of the tension gets relieved earlier in the story, instead of just continuing to pile on. Or writing an extremely long and complicated climax. And my novels are complicated enough, already.

And it just occurs to me, that may be why there are almost always two really big battles at the end of most Dresden books. I may have to try re-reading a few and charting out the sub plots.

Purely for academic purposes, of course. And to hone my craft. Not because I just read one fantastically fun story and the next one won’t be out for at least a year. It’s not like I’m addicted.

I can stop re-reading them any time I want…

One problem with prequels

“Prequels are really difficult,” Alan Dean Foster once said. The main reasons I recall him giving were that usually the readers who most wanted to read a sequel were fans of the original work. Therefore, they already knew the characters’ future, removing one source of dramatic tension. Also, they often had already imagined their own version of events, and whatever the author comes up with may not match up to their expectations.

Another reason is that the author often doesn’t know exactly what happened. So when we try to put the events into some sort of narrative that is satisfying to us, it may not actually add up to an interesting story.

This will prompt some people to ask, “But it’s your story! How can you not know the details?!”

Let me give an example from one of my current writing projects. At the moment it consists of two novels: one is a sequel to the another. In the first book, one of my protagonists is an apparently human, somewhat mysterious, fortune teller. One of the villains is the Zombie Lord. One of the mysteries surrounding the fortune teller is that she has some sort of past relationship with the Zombie Lord.

For plot purposes in the first book, the readers needed to know that some sort of friendly relationship had once existed, but there had been a falling out. So I’ve included only enough information to establish that before it becomes important. And no more.

At the time I was writing the first book, I knew more than the little bit I revealed, but it wasn’t a huge amount more. I didn’t need to know more. I knew how well they know each other, and how they feel about each other now, so I could write their interaction (and eventual combat) correctly, but that’s all I needed to know, so it’s all I’d figured out.

In the second book, their past—and their relationships to several more characters—is integral to the plot. So I have figured and filled in a few more details. Again, I’m figuring out more than will actually appear in the story, but there’s a lot I’m not worrying about.

One of the things I don’t know, for instance, is exactly what sequence of events led to them ceasing to be friends. Ultimately, it was because he became an evil overlord, of course, but was there a defining moment? An action he took where it became obvious that’s the path he was going down? Or was it a gradual thing?

All creative people do that sort of thing. For example, say you have this idea for a poem or a painting or a song about what it feels like to be a young person who decides to throw all your problems and cares away and just leave, start a new life on the other side of the country or something. So you create the work of art, and you do everything in your power to capture that feeling, and you might end up with something like this:

After writing it you spend the next forty years being asked by reporters, fans, and talk show hosts what exactly was the crime that set this whole thing off. For all of those forty years you keep coming up with variants on the answer that you don’t know, it didn’t matter for you in creating the piece. What was important was that feeling you were trying to evoke. He wanted his listeners to project themselves into the song and just experience that moment.

The other reason it doesn’t matter is because part of the point of art is to engage the audience. That song isn’t only about what Paul Simon was thinking when he wrote it. The song is also about what each and every listener who hears it finds within it. My meaning, when I hear it and sing along, is just as viable and true as the meaning he had when he wrote it. Your meaning when you hear it is just as viable and true, as well. His meaning when he performs it all these years later is no more, and no less, true than the meaning that someone who his never heard it before may find if they hear a recording tomorrow.

We leave things unsaid in stories because we should only include things that move the story along. We leave them unsaid because in our pursuit of telling the best version of the story we can, we can’t afford to let ourselves run down rabbit holes and lose the story. We leave them unsaid because the story isn’t real until it is heard or read and believed by an audience. We leave them unsaid because the audience can’t throw them self into the story unless we leave room for them.

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