Category Archives: Publishing
Necessary parts? Check. Snazzy image of what it’s supposed to look like in the end? Check. Tools? Check. Handy-dandy instruction manual? Check. Armchair generals? Check. Know-how (you’ve used a hammer before) – aaand check.
Yet somehow it’s not working. Where’s the disconnect between the job you think you’ve done and the one you actually did? Where does it all go wrong to make publishers’ veins pop, and drive readers straight to Netflix?
- COMPONENTS: Having all the necessary parts is not the same as understanding what they’re for and how they all fit together. Most writers are task literate (composition) but process illiterate (narrative), which makes getting from beautiful image to beautiful finished product extremely challenging if not impossible. Putting a story together doesn’t make the bits and pieces mean something developmentally, whether the plotting dominoes seem to all line up or there’s minimal plot. That’s what writers get so wrong. But don’t feel bad. Most published fiction demonstrates the same process illiteracy (yes, even famous writers), which is why a novel might tank; the writer’s high-level task literacy blinds publishers to the novel’s deeper infrastructural deficits. Sometimes, the publisher mistakes a pile of random garbage for a highly experimental and non-linear work of art. Readers know otherwise, though. In the aggregate, they know the difference between a pile of random garbage and, say, The Sound And The Fury.
- PERSPECTIVE: You don’t have the right perspective to understand how the image in your head will become the thing itself. This is not your fault. You came to the project impeded by the notion that as long as you had tools and instructions you could get results, but nobody taught you how to see holistically and strategically like an architect and engineer instead of just a putterer or, at best, a builder.
- TOOLS: The best tools in the world mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get them to work for you. But what if the project calls for tools you didn’t even know existed: you don’t know what they are, where you can get them, or how to use them. How can any project come to fruition with such an impediment? Most possess only the most rudimentary tools. For writers the toolbox might contain lexical, syntactical, scenic, and symbolic tools. What you really need in order to do well, though, is not even on the radar or in your budget (because, believe it or not, projects of this nature require a certain amount of investment). So you end up taking a short cut trying to use a Phillips head when you really need a spline drive, with all the expected results. For writers, that means having minimal (but mostly zero) developmental or narrative tools available.
- INSTRUCTIONS: Instructions are always torture because they’re generalized and have been filtered through the mind of someone who isn’t you, therefore your specific process and task illiteracy are contaminated and obstructed by their general process and task literacy. In the end this difference will cost you in terms of excess or missing parts and a poor quality outcome. And why wouldn’t it? Truly, the project isn’t really yours anyhow, is it?
- ARMCHAIR GENERALS: What armchair generals see is based on what they know, not on who you are or what your project is about. Unlike instruction-makers, the problem with armchair generals is that they likely don’t know more than you, and possibly less. They’d be shouting the same things from the comfort of their armchairs no matter what, so any advice will not likely help you be more knowledgeable or produce a more meaningful outcome.
- KNOW-HOW: Maybe this is about skill, maybe it’s about talent. Or both. Take a look at some of the DIY web sites out there (I’m looking at you Hometalk, you endless click-baity letdown) and you’ll notice some people who put an excruciating, unconscionable amount of effort and time into creating something awful. All the know-how is there but what they do with it and the direction they take it is just mind-bogglingly senseless, adding nothing to the sum of things for anyone but themselves. Well, writing isn’t a project hanging on the rec room wall for personal pleasure. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as long as that eye is yours and yours alone – or the five people in the world with your exact aesthetic sensibilities or sufficient pity for your dedication and passion. No. Writers must share, and relate, and make others see the worth and meaning of what they see and what they’ve created. If you can’t do that, if you’re the only one who sees it or you can’t make anyone else see it, maybe you’re just not made for this work. You should not be making this dang thing in the first place. So just slowly back away before someone gets hurt. Chances are, it’ll be you.
When we go to the grocery store we can never really tell if the fruit or vegetables are bad until we sink our teeth into dry, pulpy disappointment.
We all have books on our shelves we’ve loathed, books that make us mourn the trees sacrificed for nothing and that we’ve judged not worth the time stolen to read them.
If you believe this Nielsen data graph (courtesy of ingenta.com) on the performance of fiction in the marketplace, you have to know it represents people increasingly becoming disappointed in fiction.
And yes, that’s a nearly 50% drop you see there in General Fiction over the course of a mere decade.
You also have to know that the true statistic would be far worse if they included readers who keep buying books that keep on disappointing but there’s no way to count disgust or disinterest after good money has already been laid down.
Just for funsies, how many of you out there have ever returned a novel because it stunk? It would be interesting to find out. But more importantly it would be interesting to find out why readers don’t return terrible books, so in the comments section tell us why you don’t treat rotten fiction like rotten fruit.
Should we be sending that message to the industry and to writers for failing readers?
It seems that once certain stories appear on the literary radar the whole landscape changes and nearly everything that follows pales by comparison. What do these works offer readers that can help writers at all levels and styles better understand their own projects – and what’s missing?
Notice I didn’t say “personality”? The writer is consistently able to create separate, distinct, incorporeal humans on the page whether they’re primary or background characters, and whether they’re highly developed or not. Even the most cardboard hard-boiled gumshoe in great detective fiction is just the visible mask of something truer humming below the surface. There’s just no need to elaborate because of the nature of the genre. These are not just caricatures or sketches of humans with quirky traits that allow the reader to distinguish between them. People don’t just have traits. Life creates those traits. Each character has its own independent agency and motivations.
The mouth-wiping tic Stephen King gave Jack Torrance in The Shining would be little more than an annoying motif if it weren’t a symptom of the character’s slow and traceable crack-up. Rather than serving to define Jack’s nature, King comes at it from the opposite direction: the tic exists because of Jack’s nature, and that’s why it works. At the same time, Wendy’s paralyzing depression is a realistic and important response to living with an addict, but more importantly it frames up what must eventually happen far more dramatically than if she were written as someone coping just fine, or as a mountain of feminist strength. This is human. Together, the family forms a credible, traumatized portrait of mental fragility.
On the more literary end, every single member of the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying is unique and palpably so, drawn in strokes as simple as Vardaman’s “my mother is a fish”; and who could ever forget the cringe-worthy scene of a boy unwittingly boring holes through his mother’s face trying to provide air for her in the coffin? The whole novel is a master class in individuality and family dynamics and culture – together a grotesquerie of human experience.
2. Understanding human nature
Not just the ability to draw a believable human being on the page, but to understand how humans think and act – almost as if the writers were born with a set of templates in their brains, which allows them to get what sets a particular type of personality off in any given direction. They’re not starting with a circumstance and throwing a character in there to deal with it. Rather, great authors understand how certain types wind up in those circumstances to begin with in order to get themselves slapped around by the disaster that’s about to come. Back story isn’t just a filler, it offers up the root source of the story’s purpose and the character’s role in it.
Take The Quiet American, for example. Greene completely gets the brokenness and essential disconnection that creates the funnel into working in foreign correspondence and intelligence. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, in Alden Pyle you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with intellectuals to see how dehumanizing too much knowledge with too little understanding can be. How easy it is to core out the need for one kind of morality for ideals deemed far superior – and to apply to it the intellectual’s fervor that replaces the less savory fervor of religiosity. For Raskolnikov, for Greene’s Alden Pyle, ideals trump reality every time. It’s a blindness that hasn’t changed one iota for centuries in certain people and never will, and the greatest writers know this. It’s part of the human template.
Great authors are students of human behaviour. They’re masters at translating it for us ordinary folk who suffer from perceptual dystrophy. In all the best stories, the deeper you look the more there is to see. The farther you pull back, the more it all connects. As your life evolves and you go back to these narratives, your own maturation and life experience opens up new perceptions about what the story is about. And there’s always something you never saw before. That’s why there are some books people read over and over, each time seeming to evolve into something surprising.
3. Interpretation and translation of human speech
They’re the greatest mimics on the planet. They can capture the nuances of human communication so perfectly that the reader knows instantly, without any unnecessary tricks, who a character is – education, upbringing, intelligence, beliefs, even gender. Accents sound natural, even when the writer is not from that particular culture. Rather than risk creating cartoonishly absurd diction, they opt to tone down so transliteration captures the essence of speech rather than merely the sounds of it. Under-doing has no down-side; over-doing it is all down-side.
4. Character development = story development = character development
Character development works in tandem with story development. They’re inextricable. If you mess up story development, you mess up character. If you don’t get the right character in the right circumstances, you mess up story development.
5. Setting as character
Setting serves the story or, if that’s not possible or desirable, it’s symbolized completely, letting character speak for and lend meaning to place (which Death Of A Salesman does superbly). Place becomes a living, breathing actor upon the characters’ circumstances. Think of the oppressive, sweat-inducing humidity and heat that go hand-in-hand with the oppressive political conditions in Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously and Kingsolvers’s The Poisonwood Bible or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
6. Place is never just a location
If setting is just window dressing because you happened to vacation there with your mom and dad in ’04, don’t bother. Although great writers do their best work writing about the places that created them, they write with equal authority about other places because they do not seek to expose the outward trappings of place like some literary tour-book; rather, they are able to uncover the beating heart of place without even having to hint at publicly definable tourist-trap features. When they travel, they go with their perceptual eye peeled wide open, watching behaviour, observing atmosphere, taking notes. They have a knack for understanding and crystallizing what they’re seeing, often better than the people who live there.
7. Human and place
Place is creative. It’s generative. Deep observers of humanity see those connections in everything. How a person grows up, how their character is formed, is as much a product of place as family and culture and genetics.
Could you write a story like Dickey’s Deliverance without tapping into the outsider’s fear and misunderstanding of mountain people and inbreeding? Would there even be a story if Dickey had set it in Long Island or Nunavut?
No. Because place is generative. Place creates. The best writers know this.
8. Time and character
The breakdown of Anna Karenina occurs in tandem with the breakdown of Russian society that presages the Bolshevik Revolution. The novel is a reflection on and a statement about a particular time. In Beloved, Sethe and her family’s struggle to free themselves of a supernatural force mirrors the struggle of ex-slaves to free themselves from the past in the years immediately after the Civil War.
Characters are both subject and product of a time. In order for Sethe’s story to encompass the greater story, it must be materially and rawly connected to the relevant past. It must be Sethe’s own experience, with very real cause and effect (to be so desperate for freedom that she is willing to kill her own child to prevent her enslavement).
A particular time creates the window of opportunity for a character’s particular experience, out of which only one story seems possible or worth telling.
It’s a potential for character that would lose its reach and potency told at any other time in history. Time seems to cleave open for great storytellers who recognize in the moment a kind of synergistic opportunity, in the same way great sculptors seem to look at a piece of stone and know instantly what lies within waiting to be revealed – that only one particular story must be formed out of it to reveal something much larger.
9. Time and place
Some places only exist in a particular way for a brief time. Before, they were too small or too undeveloped or too stable to fund a story of any significance; any later and place loses its storytelling characteristics. It’s too big, too changed, or altogether gone. Alaska during the Gold Rush. Dustbowl Oklahoma during the Depression. The Old South.
But great writers somehow always manage to show us that no place, even the most unknowable blips on the historical horizon, is ever truly unfamiliar, or ever truly known.
10. Time and Time
In the same way that time and place can form a storytelling nexus, time can also create its own meaning that becomes synonymous with an era. If someone mentions the Sixties, that simple identifier funds an entire cultural memory for different parts of the world. The Soviet Sixties evokes its greyscale oppressiveness in contrast to the wild, colorful, rule-breaking Sixties of the West.
Great writers don’t play into cliche, but rather they take the unavoidable realities of a cultural time and create something unique without stepping outside truth. They do this in delicate strokes and in nuance, so readers know the when of a story that isn’t defined by it.
Creating the cultural-era equivalent of a guide-book is not an option unless you’re writing satire or farce. That’s because real people just don’t live the guide-book. Most people rarely have first-hand contact with the cliches; only Forrest Gump could get away with it. For the most, those cliches just sort of brush by us or appear in the distance.
Stay tuned for Part 2: 10 more Non-Negotiable Qualities of a Timeless Story
Ever wonder why great novels always seem to get a better start than just about all the rest? If not the perfect first line perfectly delivered, then the perfect opening scene that seems to embody the story’s every narrative potential, like some quantum flux about to give birth to a narrative universe.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The authors didn’t choose a strong beginning or a good beginning or a powerful beginning. They chose the right beginning.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for a reason. The clocks strike thirteen on a cold day for a reason.
In this post I’ll be exploring two conditions that create the right opening lines or scenes in master storytelling.
First, the opening lines – like the titles – are fully keyed-in to a driving contextual core that lies at the heart of master stories that have been given the right start. Second, the master writer’s understanding of in medias res (in the middle of things), differs from the way we average schmos understand it.
And by the way, chances are if a story has the right opening it’s going to be one of those powerhouse novels that just keeps a hold of reader consciousness no matter when it was published. It’s because the writer who understands the difference between a good opening and the right opening already understands his or her story to the bone. It’s this deep consciousness of the story’s context that won’t let the story go off the rails.
So – contextual core? You’re probably thinking: What on earth is a contextual core?
Glad you asked.
Context is defined by a set of conditions that create meaning or signification. Woman murders husband. Battered wife kills abusive husband. Mother kills abusive husband as he holds a gun on their children. Same people, same story, but context is what lets us understand what’s happening more clearly.
In fiction the set of contextual conditions in a story create agency.
Pay very close attention to that idea.
Context can make all the difference between a Tolstoi and a Jackie Collins. Without clear context, everything from tone to authority and credibility are compromised. Place Anna Karenina in modern-day Hollywood and you take away all the contextual influences that hold enough agency to push Anna toward her end. All the same plot points transposed into Hollywood conditions would turn Anna’s suicide from social tragedy to mere melodrama. Huge difference. If you’re writing melodrama, that’s one thing. If you’re aiming for social tragedy and do a belly-flop into melodrama, chances are your context is wrong for the story.
Without a particular contextual foundation, each unfolding outcome would lose more and more credibility and authority – and, eventually, the reader.
In fiction there’s context and there’s the right context. Great stories embody an exact mix of contextual elements that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
The Quiet American. A Tale of Two Cities. The Year of Living Dangerously. Middlesex. The Shining. Gone With The Wind. Heart of Darkness. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Rebecca. The Power and the Glory.
These are contextually almost pitch-perfect, and it shows in their openings (lines or scenes). When you come across stories like these it’s like coming upon Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. You can’t explain why, but you know you’re looking at a piece of art that’s like nothing else. The hands, the expression (dead-on and from below), the stance – none of it could ever be any different. It’s as if that sculpture was always in that block of stone from the beginning of time, awaiting only the right artist to come by and recognize what had to be chipped away to reveal such a wonder.
It’s the same thing with master storytelling. It’s as if the entire story has always existed fully formed,buried there under a pile of words and letters until some genius comes along, dusts away the excess and reveals this marvel of narrative construction.
So what does context have to do with getting it right in story creation?
Remember the old chestnut write what you know? Well, the master storyteller writes what s/he understands. That’s a world of difference. You can know life under the torture of a drug abuser without ever understanding it. What great writers understand about themselves and life seeds their storytelling context, which in turn becomes the reader’s deepest, most subconscious connection to the story and, inevitably, to the writer and humanity.
Graham Greene, for example, understood the psychological double-bind of his devout Catholicism and his personal moral failings. He explored it to great effect in his best works, thereby creating vital connections between himself and the reader through narrative.
Greene’s The Quiet American opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to show up for their dinner plans. Even the names are perfectly chosen to suit the context, especially the apt mangling of Fowlair on the French colonials’ tongues. Opening at this exact moment is brilliant because (spoiler alert!) Fowler isn’t really waiting for Pyle to show up for dinner, he’s awaiting a defining moment of moral conscience – to see if he has succeeded in getting Pyle killed or not.
There’s so much wrapped up in starting precisely at this moment – Fowler’s manipulation of the situation, of Phuong and Pyle, the authorities, his ability to psychologically hive off and justify his own moral failure but not Pyle’s, his opportunism and narcissism. All these are characteristics Greene knew well in himself, through his many affairs and betrayals, and his own personal character and politics.
There’s also a pivotal geopolitical context in this specific opening: Fowler (colonialism) thwarting an early (1955) attempt at American interventionist policy (CIA/Pyle) in Vietnam (Phuong). It’s not just genius, it’s downright prescient. The perfect context sets up the story conceptually, symbolically, thematically, relationally, and morally.
When Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities on those famous lines, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, he’s setting up a context of dissonant binaries that define and fuel the entire story – geopolitics, morality, social structures, family, love.
Context – the right context – informs not just story development, but character development as well. It’s what lets it all work together, separately, to move a story in the right direction instead of just toward some kind of plotted conclusion.
Unsound context creates dissonance with readers. Scarlett O’Hara is a very different character than Pansy O’Hara would have been had Margaret Mitchell not renamed her heroine at the last minute, even if not one other detail about the story had changed. The name alone would have been a confusing red herring, intimating weakness and frailty and, perhaps, somehow the inconsequential. It would have stripped GWTW of an important driving subtextual allusion: Scarlett and the scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon; Babylon with Atlanta, Atlanta with Belle Watling, the whore of Atlanta; Belle with Scarlett the Southern Belle; Scarlett connected with ruin through Atlanta and Rhett (the beast upon which the whore rides). The average reader might not pick up the chain of allusion, but it’s there in the background pulling a vital part of the storytelling load.
A story with no context at all is unfocused, weak, lacking in life force and drive. That’s when writers just throw in some random opening because it’s “hot” or puts the character in a high-action moment to get readers interested, only for the story to crumble to pieces with every page and chapter.
The right context won’t let that happen. The right context gets a story off and running in the only way that’s possible, and keeps it going toward the only ending possible, not in a way that suggests predictability or stock storytelling, but in the way that David could only have been sculpted as it was.
In Medias Res
Whenever you hear or read people discussing this idea it’s always somehow associated with the middle of the story’s action – something linear, a moment in chronological time.
Actually, if you look at the greats (and why look at anything less?), in medias res has less to do with the story action or chronology, but rather a contextual crossroads (yes, that again!). It’s a 3-D collision point, after which we witness the unfolding carnage and aftermath.
In The Year of Living Dangerously, a brilliant and forgotten masterpiece by Christopher Koch (the movie is a pale but beautiful ghost of the novel), the story opens at a crossroad of the characters’ lives both individually and together as a group, and in terms of geopolitics, driving symbolism, and Wayang allegory. Although Guy Hamilton is technically the protagonist, the novel introduces Billy Kwan first. It has to. Billy is the spark that sets everything off toward conclusion. That’s agency. Without Billy, Guy’s story would have slogged through with a resounding meh.
The Power and the Glory does the same thing, opening on what seems like an odd note: not the morally compromised Whiskey Priest, the story’s protagonist, but a sickish, abstracted ex-pat dentist heading through a dusty, broiling Mexican town toward a wharf to pick up canisters of ether. This scene sets up, first, the contextual breadth of the story’s experience with the Whiskey Priest. Second, it establishes the oppressive atmosphere and menace that bring the Whiskey Priest to us in the middle of it all and, eventually, delivers him into legend. The heat, the poverty, the corruption, the hopelessness – all work together like cogs. The story’s eye can’t be focused directly on the priest, but rather obliquely; an internal exile on the run, he enters and exits, enters and exits each scene and each perspective, so that we the readers feel the dogs of pursuit (his own, personally, and ideologically) that continually drive him on toward martyrdom. It’s a fraught, contextually rich opening scene.
To create good stories, and to engage in storytelling as the only delivery system possible between writer and reader, you need a solid contextual bedrock.
How powerful is it to get context right?
Context helps you put the right characters into the story, with the individual and collective agency to enact your storyline. It keeps you on track, focused, because you’ll understand what your story is about instead of just following a series of plot points that, alone, can’t generate the vitality or dynamic momentum that otherwise originate in the writer, from inside the story, out toward the reader.
Even a strong theme and premise can’t do that.
Starting with the right contextual core and understanding its power means that the right opening will be easier to find – the in medias res, that crossroads, that quantum flux where your story’s universe will come to glorious life.
It’s pretty amazing to pull off. If you can pull it off. Make the POV character appear to be the protagonist so convincingly that the only way anyone would ever notice s/he is actually the antagonist is to re-read the story with a mental focus on someone else.
The quote is from The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!” If you’re a writer and you can disguise your antagonist as a protagonist, you can convince readers to look elsewhere for the story’s devilment. By doing so you’ve created an undercurrent of such angst that it keeps readers digging right through to the back of the story trying to figure out the source of their uneasiness.
But like anything that makes us feel that way, we just have to make it go away, to resolve it somehow. But even when you find out, you’re left with a permanent sense of self-doubt about who’s the real devil.
In my last Story Analyst post, The Second Glance, I discussed how Margaret Mitchell did such a thorough job convincing readers that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist survivor and hero of phoenix-like power who has been a role-model for millions of women, especially those who faced the Great Depression and WWII, that it isn’t until you look at the story through Rhett’s choices that you realize there’s something very different going on – and it’s so much darker and more sinister than readers realize.
This is playing with storytelling DNA. It’s the epigenetics that runs deep in the molecular matter of powerful, memorable narratives that no plot twist could ever equal. Plot twists merely change a story’s outcome. Great storytelling DNA allows writers to flip a switch through this epigenetic quality that changes what the story is depending on how you look at it. It’s not just the appearance of one thing until the end confirms the trick, like a Shyamalan movie. It’s simultaneously different stories.
In The Virgin Suicides [spoiler alert: plot points and ending will be discussed], when Jeffrey Eugenides introduces us to the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who witness the tragedy of the Lisbon family, it’s very easy to get so caught up in the fact that we’re being told this story from their perspective that we assume their role is that of any ordinary narrator – the protagonists in a story about their efforts to understand what happened in the house across the street (I’ll refer to the narrators in plural, although it’s never entirely clear).
But Eugenides does something so clever – or intuitive – and subtle that it’s never even mentioned when you read reviews or critiques.
The narrators are not protagonists. The narrators are the antagonists.
They’re sexual predators.
While they’re busy asking themselves what was wrong with the Lisbon girls, we should be asking ourselves what’s wrong with these boys and, potentially, boys. Period.
After all, they are as a narrator a multi-headed beast, the collective “we”. A Chimera.
What we’re convinced by the narrators is fascination with a family of beautiful girls is actually a lurid and dehumanizing sexual obsession. It’s a prolonged, concentrated, group violation on the sisters during a period of their sexual formation that slowly chips away at their sense of security, privacy, integrity, selfhood, sexuality, and identity – as all violation does – until their damage is so irrevocable that suicide is the only way they can escape the torture that’s described to us in such passionate and delighted terms. And like all sexual violence, the community shares blame by doing nothing about what’s going on. Boys will be boys, right?
Check out the first scene. Cecilia the Stoic is floating in the bloody water of the tub after having slit her wrists, with a laminated “picture of the Virgin Mary … held against her budding chest.” Spirituality and sexuality together are an important cue for what we’re about to experience; they are not just dichotomies which, taken to extremes, are devastating, they are also inextricable binaries that bleed into one another. Repression and profligacy, denial and dogma. The boys and the Lisbon parents play out this drama in tandem, trapping the girls, squeezing the humanity and life out of them from both ends.
Every single detail matters symbolically to the story, even the fact that the picture is laminated.
By linking this imagery, Eugenides is already revealing the terrible source of the sisters’ pain, and by using the term Stoic (as opposed to stoic) right off the bat he’s instructing us to not look at the story based on what we are told, but by what we witness of the players’ behaviors. That’s what Stoicism is, and it’s an important revelation to place right there at the beginning.
The story is so richly written that there’s hardly a thing a reader dares ignore – even Mary in her bedroom window, captured in a real estate photo looking as if her hair were on fire like Lavinia standing at the sacrificial altar from the Aeneid.
(Oh dear fellow writers, this is why you must know your legends and mythologies and biblical accounts! Details like this make you want to snatch Eugenides by his soul patch and kiss him straight on the … forehead? Forehead. I wouldn’t take any liberties, after all.)
The boys’ focus on the girls is expressed with a robust enthusiasm that makes the reader lose sight of what’s actually happening.
Now, instead of teenage boys, let’s exchange the narrators for a group of neighbourhood men and see how it would make any woman feel.
They watch the house, look into the windows. They know intimately the Lisbons’ comings and goings. They watch them from their own homes. The girls are their masturbatory aids.
When one of the boys is invited to dinner, the entire experience is framed through the narrators’ sexualized interpretation. If the girls are kicking him under the table, it isn’t just youthful goofing around. It’s sexual. It’s arousing. When the boy goes upstairs to use the bathroom he violates their privacy and sanctity by making a creepily detailed inventory of their rooms (the bra hanging on the crucifix reinforces the spirituality/sexuality binary) and the contents of the bathroom, right down to the shade of lipstick they are able to match to its owner when they spy on her later. Which is disturbingly specific. He digs into the trash and finds a used tampon – something the narrators sickeningly find titillating, like the handkerchiefs dipped in blood after an execution and kept as a souvenir.
One of the boys crawls through the sewage system to break into the house with the intention of watching them shower and to spy on them in their most intimate moments. When he hears water running he enters the bathroom without hesitation . He’s on the hunt, that’s what he’s there for. There is no question of his entitlement in this act.
Imagine someone doing that to your home, your private, personal space invaded by someone who is willing to permanently cripple your sense of safety, privacy, and feelings, just so he can watch you shower. It’s so rapey it should send chills down the readers’ spines. But it doesn’t. Like all other aspects of rape culture, even in its infancy stage (which this novel perfectly illustrates) our only response has always been going blind, deaf, and mute in its presence.
So the boy walks in on the opening scene of the book – Cecilia naked in the bath, covered in blood from her slit wrists.
Now, by this time the boys have been watching and sexually abusing the girls for quite a long time. This is not a new development. There’s no way the family – or at least the girls – would be unaware of the lewd interest always directed at them.The boys have opened their pants and exposed themselves to Cecilia. They have looked up her dress. Transgression is their norm. It’s our norm.
After the funeral – of a thirteen year old girl – another boy admits he “would have copped a last feel … if only [the others] had been there to appreciate it.” They enlist a neighbourhood girl to take inventory of Cecilia’s bedroom post-suicide, even checking to see if the sheets have been cleaned, what’s in her underwear drawers.
Even in these moments of finality, the narrators’ prey is denied her own space, sanctity, dignity, and peace.
They further impinge on her right to respect by getting hold of her diary, stolen by a plumber’s assistant, and pass it around, fingering it like porn instead of returning it to the family. Even the sisters’ medical records are later breached as the boys grow up and research every aspect of their lives in their increasing fetishization.
The high school bad-boy, Trip Fontaine, later tells the boys he loved Lux like he’d never known love before or since, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Yet he pursues her relentlessly until she finally finds herself on the football field on prom night losing her virginity to him. She awakens there in the morning alone. Despite his claim that he never loved anyone the way he loved Lux, he abandons her after sex and discards her there on the field like a used condom, then never speaks to her again – or even sees her.
Stoic. We must look at the actions, not the words.
On and on it goes, a portrait of boys so secure in their romanticized depravity and their right to it that even we the readers grow too fascinated by the Lisbon girls to really notice much more than a faint cringiness as we’re reading.
Violation is the norm. The knife-sharpener delivers a fifteen minute demonstration just to leer at fourteen-year-old Lux sunbathing in a bikini. Fourteen.
Each of the girls is a casualty of these experiences. Set up against the increasing repression and break-down of their parents, they react in ways that any rape or sexual assault victim – or any therapist – will agree are credible: depersonalizing, disengaging, becoming hypersexual, disappearing into faith or mysticism.
With each progressive assault on their privacy, burgeoning identity, and sexuality, the girls go from being normal, healthy, vibrant young women to depressed, disconnected, and suicidal.
None of this happens until the boys begin to essentially violate them – sexually or otherwise – on a continuous basis. The girls are their sexual fantasies and little else, a living, breathing pornography that requires no consent, and no humanity.
Is it any wonder the girls invite the boys over to return the violation: they use the boys’ blind lust to lure them to the house where each girl one by one commits suicide right under their noses. It’s the only way the sisters can regain their power as women and as human beings.
This is a story about a group of boys’ sexual awakening at someone else’s expense. When, finally, they ask themselves if they contributed to what happened, the only conclusion is no, they didn’t.
Of course not.
Look at the way those girls acted. Look at the way they dressed.
They weren’t just asking for it. They were begging …
Bravo, Eugenides. That was truly the loveliest trick of all. Your readers thank you.
Writers, how about it? Could you pull it off?
You know that quality in the stories you love, and love to read over and over – the quality that almost sends little electric shocks into the story-center of your brain? Ever wonder what that is?
And yes, there is a scientifically proven story-stimulus center in your brain called the corpus fabella, and it’s right at the center of the middle commissure –
Not really, but some day I’m sure such an area of the brain will be found.
Anyhow, let’s explore where those little shocks come from in narrative, and what it has to do with our lifelong love of certain stories.
I’m going to use Gone With The Wind here as an example, because it’s probably the most known story on the entire planet. Now, I’m not talking about the movie. The movie is just a surface treatment of the story, and excellent as it is, much has been lost of Mitchell’s detailed subtleties and meticulous character development.
For generations everyone has seen the story from the perspective of Scarlett the survivor. She’s got the gumption. She remakes herself into a civil-war phoenix. Since the Great depression, women everywhere have admired and emulated her moxie and strength. People used to break bookstore windows just to steal the display copy, touching nothing else in the store, nor any other book in the display.
When was the last time you heard anyone have that reaction to a book? Well, as much as literary snobs like to deride GWTW for various obvious reasons, there are also compelling reasons it has lasted as long as it has.
It’s not what it appears to be.
In fact, there’s something very dark going on under the surface. It’s hidden in full view, but its energy is part of what leaves the reader tingling in stories like these, without ever being able to identify what exactly delivers the electric shock.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll unearth a startlingly different story if you look at Rhett’s actions. Starting with the introductory rumor at the Twelve Oaks BBQ that as a youth Rhett took a girl riding without a chaperone, ruined her (whatever that means, but we’re assured no there was no baby), then refused to marry her. This introduces us to Rhett’s attitude toward women, social mores, and marriage, all in one anecdote. Oh, and plus he looks at Scarlett as though he sees her without her “shimmy” on, which suggests his raw sexual interest in her. This is the first moment that links Scarlett to “ruined women” through Rhett, and it’s Mitchell’s promise to the reader that Scarlett will be ruined. Besides war, Rhett is Scarlett’s most important apocalypse.
Contrast all that with Rhett’s deference and respect for Melanie, Scarlett’s polar opposite temperamentally (who also embodies the qualities Scarlett loves most in her own mother and wishes but fails to emulate), and the one woman in the world she hates most. Rhett has no respect for Scarlett, but he also has no sexual interest in “ladies” of his own social class whom he can respect. Neither can he seem to truly honour any “lady” with sexual qualities.
The next woman to whom we’re introduced through Rhett is Belle Watling, Scarlett’s polar opposite socially. Notice the subtle positioning of Scarlett’s social identity as a Southern Belle against the prostitute’s deliberate naming. Notice, further, the connection between Scarlett and “the scarlet woman” – the whore of Babylon or, in this case, Atlanta, who is destroyed by the beast with seven heads and ten horns. Rhett is continually described by the qualities of his head. The ten horns – well, you can figure that one out.
Mitchell drops these little literary squibs into the story to tell us something we hardly notice, yet their bursts together are far more important than the story we all think we know.
Rhett compares Scarlett to Belle. The problem is that Scarlett belongs to a social caste that makes her unattainable to him because of his “fallen” status. And the problem with Belle, whom he seems to love AND respect, is that she’s an illiterate white trash prostitute who’s no lady, and he’s still at his very core a Southern gentleman. As a partner she is completely unacceptable. All his social interactions with her are through her bordello and behind closed doors. They are never seen together in public, though continuously connected because it’s Rhett who owns the bordello, whose carriage she drives, whose handkerchiefs she uses, and to whom she has entrusted the care of her son – who may or may not be Rhett’s child as well.
No matter how hard Rhett rejects his caste and culture, it’s part of who he is. We see how deeply this is entrenched when he actually leaves Scarlett on the road to Tara to join the Confederates for their final suicidal push despite how he despises the Cause. We see this when he courts Melanie’s respect and loyalty then, after Bonnie is born, he works at regaining his reputation so she can have the very social position he has openly reviled all along. Even in the end, when he’s walking out on Scarlett for the last time, it’s to return to his people to try to find what he’s lost of the gentility and decency he himself has gone out of his way to destroy – in Scarlett as much as his own life. All without a single pang of conscience – or even awareness – of his own role in creating her to begin with.
None of this deep-running caste identity matters, though. Rhett is a social outcast, ruined. He can never truly be part of decent society again. Not in that world, anyhow.
In GWTW we are not watching the slow growth of a naive narcissist into a hard-headed business woman and survivor. Oh no. What we’re witnessing without really realizing it is Rhett’s deliberate, methodical breakdown of Scarlett into the kind of woman he can possess only by destroying her. He can’t have Belle – ever – because he can never lower himself enough as a Southern gentleman to legitimize her. Neither can he remove her from the society that has rejected them both – say, West where their reputations won’t follow them or won’t matter – because he’s too rooted. But what he can do is take a fool like Scarlett, who comes from his own caste or in fact one slightly lower, and remake her into a socially acceptable Belle – the scarlett woman and “counterfeit bride” he deserves.
This isn’t just subtle suggestion either. He says it over and over, and in fact warns her off at one point because he tells her he’s destroying her. But she’s such a vain, self-absorbed child that she – and we the readers – fail to notice. We’re too wrapped up in her scheming and electrifying personality to notice that even her scheming is being manipulated from the sidelines by Rhett to a large extent.
All this adds a dark energy to the story, which readers feel but can’t specifically identify. Nobody ever sees GWTW as the story of a woman’s slow ruin at the hands of a master manipulator, a predator, and, quite possibly, a sociopath. We’re too blinded by what’s going on at the surface to see it but it runs through the very depths of the story with a kind of self-sustaining power.
It’s a darkness and an energy that keeps the reader off balance enough to return to the story over and over in order to understand why, no matter how many times we’ve read it, we still question and doubt, we still can’t see it clearly enough, nor can we ever know for sure if we got it right.
We don’t know how we’ve come to care for these characters – the kinds of people most of us might not even want as friends or to date or marry. In fact, look deeply enough and you’ll find that they’re all pathetic, pathological fools.
Just like us.
We cheer for them, and despite how they’ve chipped away at and tortured each other through three inches of paper and binding, we insist on fantasizing that they’ll still get back together a few pages after the end not because they’re both horrible, disturbed people who deserve each other and shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone else, but because we’ve been unable to engage our critical thinking for a single moment since “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” (a fact to which we also seem to blind ourselves exactly one sentence later and for the rest of the story – as indeed, we are caught by her charms), and have thus convinced ourselves that what has just happened is love – and one of the greatest romances ever.
It’s this dark center in the story that keeps GWTW from floating off into the ether of a pulp romance. It’s not what it seems to be. You can tear off layer after layer and find something more, but because we’re so enraptured by the surface energy of these tantalizing characters, we fail to notice another kind of shiver pulsing down our spines, and that’s the scary, mutually destructive risk of love.
After the initial read with stories like these, something tugs at us so we go back and find more, then the tugging happens again and we go back to find still more.
Within the powerful surface story of survival and love is layer upon layer of electrically charged deeper realities that tell us more and more about who we are. Mitchell was a powerful observer of family life and character, but she writes it all with such gusto that we develop a love and devotion to the very kinds of people we can’t tolerate when we run across them in our own lives, and in doing so she’s freeing us of our own resistance to the faults and failures of others to show us that we are all stories of love and survival.
But at what cost?
So we dig through these surface narratives to learn what those costs can be.
That’s the second glance.
That’s what great writers offer their readers.
Little by little, as narrative has transitioned from a means of interpreting human experience to one of interpreting personal experience, and from expression to self-expression, we have lost our focus on story as a means of connection with others.
So let’s start with this: writing is to storytelling what talking is to conversation. Writing is a monologue. Storytelling is a dialogue. You can talk at someone without ever being in a conversation with them. Unfortunately, more and more writers simply write at readers.
Great writers are great storytellers, and they know they’re in a kind of conversation with readers.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s the writing paradigm that we’ve all bought into which creates a natural barrier between writers and readers. Right now the process of story production such as it is begins with an idea, continues with extrapolating that idea to the writer’s satisfaction, and ends with a completed manuscript.
After that, if the writer wants to reach an audience it becomes the publisher’s responsibility, along with all the various supporting strategies now available digitally.
As writers we’ve come to rely on the sense of security that the work of establishing readership is out of our hands and placed into a delicately balanced system of marketing and PR and social networking and cash. It’s branding, it’s positioning, it’s funding. If the book fails it’s because some part of that system – or all of it – has failed. Even when we’re busy with promotion ourselves as writers, the outcome still depends on the success or failure of promotion.
That’s how we’re being brainwashed anyway.
The final fall-back for blame is that the writer wasn’t much good to begin with – or was just too beautiful for this world. Only one of those is ever true – and about 99% of the time.
But the failure of the formula is not the root of our failure to reach readers. The failure is that how the reader fits in is wrong. The whole writing paradigm is wrong, wrong, WRONG.
Now, you’re probably thinking – but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? Where’s the pitfall?
Think about it like this:
The job of reaching the reader shouldn’t start with the publisher. It shouldn’t even start with the writer. It should start in the writing.
Now, when I’m talking about the reader, I don’t mean the vague reader-as-theoretical-consumer that writers assume – the imagined persona that comes with the question we’ve all been told by well-meaning advice-givers to ask ourselves at some point – “who is my reader?” – which represents the kind of demographic that would pick up a book like ours.
Some of us imagine a particular friend or relative as a stand-in for this mythical consumer, or we latch onto a more successful author’s fanbase to claim as our intended fans.
Which really only means “I want her buyers or I want his buyers” without ever understanding the most powerful reasons the writer has earned those readers to begin with.
But identifying who your ultimate fan might be is a terrible misunderstanding of the role the reader plays in story creation. We imagine some ghostly set of characteristics hovering in the backdrop that silently love – and buy – our kind of writing.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The reader is not outside the text, watching, assessing, guiding.
For the writer, the reader is not a demographic. Not a consumer. Not even a potential fan. That’s who the reader is after the fact, once the story reaches the marketplace.
Before that point, for the writer, the reader is in the fact, in the story as it’s being created. The reader is as absorbed into the text as the writer is.
But if you as a writer don’t understand what this means, there’s no way you can engage the reader through your creation. And if you don’t engage the reader, no amount of writing or marketing or money or social networking will ever create an audience for you.
A consumer is just someone who buys a product. A fan is a happy consumer.
The reader is the other half of the story-mind. The reader is the other participant in a narrative conversation. If the story has failed, it’s because the writer failed primarily as a storyteller and secondarily as a writer.
Being in that dialogue and getting into the reader’s head is not the job of the publisher, or the social network, or bloggers and book-selling entities. Getting the book into the reader’s hand is the publisher’s job, the job of marketing and promotion.
Getting into the reader’s head is the writer’s job. And writers don’t have a clue how it happens.
It isn’t magic or some mysterious creative force, or luck, that you either have or don’t have. That’s what talent and genius bring to a narrative.
And this is not to say in any way that writers should produce what they think an audience wants to read. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that at all. It’s about understanding how the reader’s mind interacts with story.
The most important factor in reaching the reader is storytelling, and understanding storytelling requires that the writer understand what creates a story beyond just the act of writing.
But right now, storytelling illiteracy is rampant among writers. Storytelling illiteracy has been fostered by the writing paradigm and supported wholeheartedly by the publishing model as an acceptable minimum.
Reaching the consumer is not what creates success. It’s reaching the reader first that makes success even a remote possibility. Yet something goes wrong somewhere between the writer and the writing. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that the string of plotting details you’ve laid out works and that the outside forces will do your job in addition to their own to get readers interested.
That’s an awful lot of your life and creativity to leave to luck or someone else’s whims.
But in the current writing paradigm, that’s what writers are doing. We’ve all been absorbed into this creed and have even taken the blame for how it consistently fails us.
We’re awful storytellers, and the writing paradigm makes it impossible for us to know it. It privileges writing over storytelling, so writers can spend years in the writing community at every level – from informal writer’s groups all the way up to graduate programs – without ever being taught what creates storytelling, and without ever knowing how badly we’re messing it up.
The insurmountable problems writers are consistently creating in their narratives are developing out of a writing paradigm that sets writers – and publishing – up for failure. In fact, in the writing paradigm, success is the anomaly rather than the rule. There is no other choice.
While we labour away according to a writing paradigm, stories that last grow out of a storytelling paradigm. We no longer have the knowledge or the ability – or justification if you listen to some people – to privilege storytelling over writing. In fact, in some circles incoherence and a complete lack of storytelling are honoured as evidence of literary superiority, but if you look at some of the masterpieces of experimental narrative, there is nothing incoherent about them. They adhere to the principles of storytelling as much as any straight linear work. But the writers then break narrative into bits and pieces so the reader must approach it archaeologically or forensically and representationally and linguistically as a rare thing to be discovered and mentally reassembled. Experimental writers are failing not because they’re too smart for the reader but because they actually believe that the narrative is created out of incoherence. Not so.
We need a new paradigm, and it has to be a storytelling paradigm that gives writers a holistic view of narrative that embraces reader engagement. The storytelling paradigm is the one that accepts that the story doesn’t end with a finished manuscript but rather a finished story.
What a massive difference that makes in the outcome. When the writer has taken control over storytelling, it means that the reader has been engaged before the query even reaches the publisher’s desk. If a story is well-written and well-told, then even with a minimum of marketing effort there’s at least a chance that the groundswell will come from readers pushing for the book instead of the publisher.
Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to create that hunger in readers?
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Is there really only one?
Fatal – ? You tell me.
(full text here)
“Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income. Besides, the only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel.”
—Dean R. Koontz, August 1981