Tuesday, March 24, 2009

QUOTE OF THE MONTH

"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?"
-voltaire

Monday, March 16, 2009

THE LITMUS TEST

How does a writer know when he or she has written a bad story? Is there some sort of internal meter that alerts one to the fact that they might be creating crap? And if so, is this a natural ability or one that must be honed over several years of steadfast drivel-producing?

Nobody really knows the answer to that last question, but there are some interesting theories regarding it. I tend to favor the one that says it is primarily the result of instinct honed over time, but feedback is essential to the development of this skill. That’s where writers’ workshops and honest friends come in handy.

When I first tried my hand at serious writing in my teens, I naturally gravitated toward novels. That was what I read and that was what I thought was the pinnacle of fiction writing. However, a few college level creative writing courses forced me out of my comfort zone and into the realm of short story writing. Years later a science fiction writers workshop would do the same thing.

I discovered a previously untapped potential in the shorter forms, especially in the field of genre fiction where often the pay-off or hook is an important component of the tale being told. I found I truly enjoyed reading short fiction in most of its formats and genres and so I began writing my own.

Man, did it suck in the beginning! Imitative, derivative, and lackluster are the words that come to mind when I think back to those early days of short story writing. Possessing none of the progress I’d made in my novel writing attempts, it was a period of starting over from scratch for me. Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to catch up.

Still, there were some humiliations and harsh criticisms along the way. I mentioned one of them some months back where an entire roomful of aspiring writers took turns ridiculing one of my stories for its clichés only later to realize it had been a first draft. Some of them didn’t care, some of them did. That was when I realized it doesn’t pay to practice empathy in this field unless it is reciprocal.

Still, I leanred some harsh lessons that summer in Lawrence, Kansas, chief among them not to show anybody what I’ve written until I can no longer tell if it’s crap. Sadly, it was during this learning curve experience that I showed a couple stories to a friend of mine whose taste in literature I consider to be mostly very good. One of them was a novella about a private investigator who literally finds himself taking a case in hell. The other was a parody of cute, fuzzy alien stories.

He didn’t like either one of them.

In fact, he hated the fuzzy alien one with a passion unrivaled. Unfortunately, I had to hear about it from a mutual friend first. This friend advised me that the reader of my hopeful little satire expressed to him some measure of trepidation over how exactly to let him know he hated my story. I’m not exaggerating my word choices here. He hated it.

Naturally I approached him and told him how disappointed I was that he didn’t feel able to just come to me and tell me how he felt about the story. He apologized and proceeded to tell me what eh felt didn’t work. I got the distinct impression he didn’t know what I was parodying, but some of his points were valid. I thought the concept of furry little aliens who have conned almost every human on the planet into thinking they’re harmless except the crew that brought them to Earth was rather amusing, but his criticisms were so negative I put it away and never even attempted a rewrite.

Similarly, the private eye tale was one he felt was written well but contained one major cliché that ruined the story. I was aware of the cliché and included it as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the idea that this particular development would be inevitable in hell. It probably didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, so I re-thiought that one too but never did any kind of rewrite.

Yes, I was a tad discouraged but I also was in the midst of changing my approach to writing. The fuzzy alien story was from my earlier stage of experimentalism. My writing changed after that, improving markedly according to James Gunn, author of several science fiction stories and creator of the first college level curriculum on science fiction in the United States. Ironically, I later abandoned SF and moved toward more of a dark fantasy and magical realism approach to my work.

That was when everything took off for me. I honed my instincts with those stories, becoming disturbingly good at writing stories about murderous psychopaths who saw themselves as the heroes in their own melodramas. My mother’s psychological background has always served me well when delving into the inner working of the demented mind. Make of that what you will.

As the eyars have marched ever onward toward oblivion, I have developed a certain litmus test for bad storytelling. I’ve reached a point where my instincts usually know when to discard an idea while still in the conceptual stage, although a few pieces of drek filter through as early drafts to be discarded soon after.

Currently I’m working on a collection of short stories. I think most of them are pretty good. I’ve learned quite a bit over the years and it seems to be working when I sit down to breathe life into these tales that randomly come to mind. None of them so far have given me that “uh-oh” feeling that says I am toiling away at garbage. Of course, I often wait a while once the first draft is completed to go back and review what I did. I try to read with the eye of an objective reader, sometimes a painful experience. But it’s worth it when I am finished and don’t feel the urge to toss it into the fireplace.

How do writers know when they’ve written bad stories? I think we just hope for the best and abandon the work to the scrutiny of others~