The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.
In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.
That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.
One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.
First level- the Plot
You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).
Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.
Second level- Character
Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.
When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but
I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.
This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.
And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.
My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.
I call the third level, for now, Theme
It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.
Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.
But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.
Do you get to the third level in your writing?