August 15th, 2005


This Only Song I Know. (Part 2)

Well, yesterday was a dramatic improvement upon Saturday. Spooky and I managed to get through all three unread chapters of Daughter of Hounds, chapters 5-7, which came to 34,979 words of proofreading and reading for continuity and suchlike. We finished about 9 p.m., I think, after dinner. There was another thunderstorm at sunset, but it was a milder thing, not the beast that hit us on Saturday evening. After the reading, we watched Alexandra Cassavetes' documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004), on IFC. Wonderful, but it left me with a terrible aching feeling I didn't want to take to sleep with me, so I played about an hour of Final Fantasy X-2. That was yesterday. Mostly, yesterday was reading, Soldier and Emmie, the daughter of the Four of Pentacles and the Bailiff, Odd Willie Lothrop and Saben White.

As for today, I believe I'm going to try to finish the prologue to The Merewife; hopefully, it will take no more than a few days.

The minor controversy over the utility of the term "self-indulgent" in the hands of book reviewers has led me to read a number of comments online, things I'd not have read otherwise, that have left me deeply baffled. I admit that I don't think a lot about writing. It's just something I do. I sit down, and I tell my stories the best way that I know how to tell them. I make decisions that seem logical to me. Later, they may seem illogical, but from wherever I happen to be standing at the time, they usually seem like good ideas. I think, "Well, that was interesting. So, what the hell happens next?" If I have a "method," that's it. The Kiernan What-Happens-Next School of Writing. And while I've not yet landed on someone's bestseller list, I look back on the last twelve years and feel like it's worked pretty well for me, all in all. Yet, I've encountered, in the last few days, very many people who are published or would like to be published who seem obsessed with the process and the mechanics of writing fiction. I'm not saying that they're necessarily wrong to do so, only that it's entirely alien to the way that I write, and I cannot help but look upon it skeptically. I was reminded of what T. S. Kuhn wrote about the incommensurability of pre- and post-revolution scientific theories, that the former truly cannot comprehend the latter and vice versa, that communication between the two is all but impossible. I cannot comprehend breaking the process of writing fiction down into its constituent mechanics in an attempt to get it all just right. And it may be that I'm just not that sort of magician, or that, for me, fiction writing is magic, not science, and I don't believe that any amount of reductionism, reverse engineering, and theorizing can cough up the secret formula the alchemists crave, the stone or elixir that would make bad prose into good prose. You might get lucky a make a golem, but a golem is only a useful facsimile, not the genuine article.

I don't judge a scene or a line of dialog by whether or not it advances the plot, for example. Imagine an edit of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction wherein only dialog that advances the plot was allowed to remain. I don't obsess over the balance of conflict and interaction. I don't generally fret over the possibility that something I do may cause some reader to experience a "disconnect" (what an odious metaphor). I don't think in dramatic arcs. I don't spend a lot of time wondering if the plot is getting lost in description and conversation. To me, this all seems like a wealth of tedious confusion being introduced into an act that ought to be instinctive, natural, intuitive. I want to say, stop thinking about all that stuff and just write the story you have to tell. Let the story show you how it needs you to write it. I don't try to imagine how the reader will react to X or if maybe A, B, and C should have happened by page R. It's not that I don't want the story to be read. I desire readers as much as anyone. But I desire readers who want to read what I'm writing, not readers who approach fiction with so many expectations that they're constantly second-guessing and critiquing the author's every move, book in one hand, some workshop checklist in the other, and a stopwatch on the desk before them. If writing or reading like this seems to work for you, fine. I mean, I've always said that when you find something that works, stick with it. But, for me, it seems as though such an anal approach to creating any art would bleed from it any spark of enjoyment on the part of the artist (not to mention the audience). It also feels like an attempt to side-step the nasty issue of talent, as if we can all write equally well if we only follow the rules, because, you know, good writing is really 99% craft, not inexplicable, inconvenient, unquantifiable talent.

And, also, I came upon an attempt to define the term "self-indulgent" by one blogger as (paraphrase) whenever the author has fallen in love with his or her fiction, when they're laughing at their own jokes. And all I can say in response to nonsense like this is that if an author isn't absolutely, blindly in love with her characters and the story at hand, if there's not a passion for the act or writing behind every word (even in the absence of a love for the act of writing), then you're in the wrong line of work, so to speak. If I don't think my jokes are funny, how the hell could I ever expect anyone else to do so? You think comedians don't laugh at their own jokes? Wrong. Two things keep me coming back to this keyboard day after day after day: 1) the need to pay the bills and 2) a passion for my stories and my characters and the language I've chosen to create them. To imply that this can be accomplished with some remote, dispassionate aplomb is, to me, patently absurd. It might be worse than absurd. It might be pernicious. Yes, I do love my characters. I even love the really terrible ones. And oftentimes this love rightfully blinds me to the subjective criticisms of others or any hope of looking at my own work objectively. It's the high cost of loving the characters, the words, the stories. Does this hurt my fiction? I seriously doubt it. Does it hurt my chances of tailoring my work to appeal to a larger audience, of clicking with the masses, of "satisfying" the largest possible number of people. Yes, undoubtedly. But I'm not really particularly interested in satisfying anyone but myself. And I rarely ever do that, satisfy myself, because I'm my own harshest critic (no, really). Yet, if I took that other route, fiction via formula and strict adherence to method, I'm pretty sure I'd never satisfy myself, or much of anyone else, for that matter. Since I began keeping this journal years ago, I've been very hesitant to hand out advice to aspiring authors, for a lot of reasons. But in this case I feel fairly confident. Listen: Love your fiction, even if you hate the act of creating that fiction, love the stories to a fault. Cry at your tragedies, laugh at your jokes, rejoice at your character's victories — or give it all up and go knit a damned sweater, instead.

But maybe that's just me.
  • Current Music
    Simon and Garfunkel, "The Only Living Boy in New York"