Archives for the month of: January, 2015

I screwed up today.

My Wednesday morning writers’ group consists of three writers who have taken novel writing classes with me and who are either very close to finishing their first drafts or beginning a second draft. The fourth writer, a new addition, has not taken a class with me and is just beginning her novel. She is also new to fiction writing in general. So naturally these writers need to be handled very differently when it comes to critiquing their work.

That’s what I forgot today. I’d gone into some deep structural stuff with the rewriter. When we turned to read the new writer’s scene, I was still in “master class” head as a facilitator. I jumped into a detailed discussion of subtle nuances of third person. My writer got upset. She reminded me that she was only twenty hard-won pages in to her story, that getting anything on the page at all was hard for her, and that this level of feedback was pushing her away from the whole project.

All I could do was apologize and tell her she was right. This was not a hand-patting, there-there-honey sort of apology, either. I’m a tough critic and proud of it. I set high standards and I don’t hold back what I think a piece of writing needs to make it better. But there are definite stages to the process of writing, and I was using the wrong tools at the wrong time.

Many years ago, I heard a fellow writing teacher talk about this very topic. She was from the South, so in your mind’s ear, think of these words being said in a soft, syrupy tone. She talked about a writer with a new idea being like a hen with a baby chick. This baby chick is fragile, easily bruised. It will grow stronger feathers, tougher claws, a harder beak, but right now, it’s vulnerable. It’s in need of protection while it grows. This woman was all about protecting your precious baby chick. [Remember: Southern accent: “chick” had at least two syllables.]

What my writer needs in a writers’ group right now is a safe place to nurture her baby chick. And I put on my fox mask….with good intentions, of course. With a desire to improve her work. But it’s too soon for that. She needs space to just get it down on paper, to write her way into the story and learn the character as she puts the character in situations. She needs to over-write, adding boring details that won’t make it into the final draft. She needs encouragement and not a lot of critiquing right now.

My job as a mentor is to remember this. Part of the reason I’m putting this incident on the blog is to remind myself. I’m also posting to remind others who teach that sometimes less is more in the “improving” game.

Finally, I’m writing to remind writing students and new writers that it’s okay to tell your teacher, editor, critic, fellow critique groupie to back off. Protect your baby chick.

Here’s the thing: in order to talk productively about what works in fiction, we have to look at specific books and take them apart the way my engineer dad used to take apart a radio. Doing that means talking about the book in a way that would give away its twists and turns and possibly ruin the book as a pure reading experience. In other words,

BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT 

Get this book. Read this book. Then come back and read the rest of this analysis if you want to share on this book and how it can inform your own fiction. 

Solitaire is a title with many meanings, which is a fairly decent place to start talking about the book. Yes, it will have a concrete meaning in the latter half of the book, when it refers to a kind of club for people known as “solos.” Solos are ex-felons whose punishment was a particular kind of solitary confinement. It consisted of being in stasis, the body immobile, the mind free to roam in a drug-induced conglomeration of images. Months in real time translated to years in the mental jail. No one emerges unscathed.

The title also refers to a game, and there are definitely games at the heart of this story. Ren “Jackal” Segura is a special young woman. Because of her date and time of birth, she is the Hope of her people, the designated representative of her corporation/country to the national government. She has been specially trained in executive management, which in this book means advanced people skills. Manipulation, some whisper. But those who whisper against the corporate overlords aren’t around for long.

So here is one principle of good fiction this book exemplifies: your hero is special. Lightning scar, inherited the Ring from crazy uncle…you know the drill. But special people can be annoying, so we also undercut that specialness somehow to make our hero more accessible. Lightning-scar boy once lived in the cupboard under the stairs, despised by  his guardians and bullied by his cousin. Ring-inheriting hero is just an ordinary hobbit, quite sure he isn’t up to the task that has fallen upon him. And Jackal has just discovered–from her jealous, abusive mother–that she is not the Hope, not born at the magic time, after all. Her birth statistics were fudged.

Doubt creeps in. Our hero is flawed. She’s flawed in some other ways, too: her status has led to her being a bit selfish, too quick to trade on her role to get privileges. She is a member of a “web,” a kind of team within the corporation, and she is always first among equals, which leads to some friction with her friends.

Here’s another fiction principle at work: conflict on all three levels. What three levels, you ask.

Three Levels of Conflict:

1. External: Character vs. The World (here, Jackal is pitted against the corporation because she fears them finding out the truth about her. She has gone, in an instant, from Golden Child to potential outcast.)

2. Interpersonal: Characters vs. Each other (here, Jackal faces jealousy from her own mother and also conflict with her web mates over her status. Note that the interpersonal conflict is directly related to the external conflict: it isn’t just random bickering. If Jackal weren’t the Hope, there might be conflict because she’s abrasive, but this conflict is rooted in the deep plot. As it should be.)

3. Internal: Character vs. Herself (here, Jackal doubts herself when she finds out she’s not really a Hope. She begins to fear the corporation she had been bred to serve.)

But you know what? This isn’t the real story. This is all the introduction to the real story. The real story begins when Jackal is caught up in a terrorist act that kills most of her web mates. Now she goes from Hope to despair (couldn’t resist) as she pleads guilty in return for her parents’ safety and agrees to undergo a punishment that is–not at all coincidentally–related to the very project she was working on for the corporation. The project is called Garbo–think about it–and it involves putting people in a solitary virtual reality environment that manipulates time so the person experiences, say, eight years while really “only” being under for ten months.

This is nice fiction work. She is hoist on her own petard. She is going to experience the very technology she was working to use on other people without giving a huge amount of thought to how it would affect them. When she was on top, it was dangerous to question the ethics of the corporation. Now she’s at their mercy.

When she was a project manager, one aspect of Garbo that was in discussion was the possibility of interaction. Could the subject in a Garbo virtual environment change the programming, create his own experience instead of being at the mercy of his own untethered mind? No one knows.

The book is divided into sections. Each section is like a capsule of focused plotting. The first one is called “Before the Fall,” which tells us right away that there will be a fall. What is up will come down. (By the way, her web mates die in a falling elevator, so we’re also being literal here.) Part II is called “After the Fall” and takes us up through the guilty plea. Part III is “Solitary” and it uses headings like “Day 177” to establish the time passage.

Okay, ten months in virtual reality solitary confinement: how is this writer going to make that interesting? How is she going to convey the gradual loss of connection to reality, the mind-games, the boredom, the lack of input making Jackal crazier and crazier?

Answer: she’s going to give us excerpts, vignettes. We will jump a couple of hundred days at a time. We will see short paragraphs and note changing dynamics. When she feels fear, it will be in the form of a crocodile. Hallucinations, snippets of scenes from her past, distorted by her lonely mind…getting gradually scarier.

One thing she does is erase her past. Literally. She mentally creates a white board and writes names on it. She erases them all, up to and including her lover, Snow. We see her survival techniques, and they finally lead to a day–day 1279, to be exact–when she notices the virtual walls of her virtual cell getting a tiny big larger. This happens again the next day and soon she has a virtual door in the virtual wall of her virtual cell.

She goes through the virtual door and enters a large virtual world that is her home. Unpopulated, but she can see vistas. She can ride her bicycle and watch sunsets.

She has, in short, completed the Garbo project: she has modified her virtual environment. She is free in her mind even as she is trapped in her cell.

Sentence over. Part IV: Solitaire. She is released into a new country and given a scary parole officer. She is back in the land of the living, but she is not the same Jackal who went inside. She can barely stand to be near anyone.

We are, by the way, on page 173 of a 353-page book. Everything up to now was just the first half. And yet it didn’t at all feel as thought it was just setup. We had setup and payoff, big things happening, her world contracting and now expanding again. Change.

But now the big question: she mastered being alone. Can she survive being in the world again?

I said at the beginning of this essay that Solitaire referred to a club for people who have been through the same experience as Jackal. She finds the club by accident and when she sees a mural by a fellow virtual prison survivor, she experiences an aftershock, a flashback of terrifying proportions. All the ex-prisoners have them, she is told.

Since this section is half the book, let’s examine the new three levels of conflict:

1. Jackal vs. The World: She’s an ex-con. Will she be able to get a job? She’s a notorious terrorist-killer in the eyes of the public. People stare at her when they realize who she is. She’s still at the mercy of the government; her parole officer can throw her back in jail for the slightest infraction.

1. Jackal vs. Other People: see above. Notorious killers tend not to make friends. Or at least savory friends. One person she does bond with is the mural painter, known to the public as The Butcher…yeah, that’ll end well. And then there’s the game-playing parole officer, who realizes Jackal’s prison experience was different from others’ but doesn’t know exactly how or why she isn’t quite as broken as she should be.

3. Jackal vs. Herself: She is broken, despite her mental vacations through her virtual door. She can’t be with people. She can’t work. She isn’t herself anymore.

Snow comes back to her, despite Jackal’s trying to cut her off. This is huge and wonderful but even Snow can’t stay overnight. Too much contact. Can this love survive?

So as I’m reading this, I’m thinking: okay, here she was the wunderkind of her corporation, whether or not the Hope thing was real. She worked on Garbo. She experienced Garbo first-hand in prison. If this corporation doesn’t figure out some way to use what she learned, they’re idiots and I don’t like reading books about idiots. I’m getting more and more exercised about this, when it is revealed that–

The scary parole officer, of course, works for the corporation. This is why she wants to know exactly what happened to Jackal in the cell. This is why she’s trying to squeeze Jackal for information.

Snow, by the way, is not just a pretty blonde. She negotiates the contract between Jackal and the corporation that puts Jackal’s ability to modify the Garbo program to good use. She also negotiates that all the ex-prisoners will be given training in how to do what Jackal did. This will help them survive their aftershocks.

It’s Snow who says at the end that Jackal, after all, was the Hope of her people. Only now her people are the damaged survivors of solitary confinement.

That’s bringing the story full circle, not only in plot terms. (She begins with the corporation as a rising executive; she ends as a consultant. She begins with Garbo; she ends with Garbo), but also in symbolic terms. She began as a (false) Hope; she ends as a true hope.

Well done, Ms. Eskridge. I look forward to more from you.

 

 

 

Yeah, you. The one in the corner at Starbuck’s nursing a venti latte and surfing the net instead of banging out the next scene of your novel. The one who just knows there’s a story in you clamoring to be told but you don’t know the mechanics of fiction writing and you’re sure those would help. The person with a half-manuscript hiding in your lingerie drawer because you’re ashamed you never found a way to finish it.

The would-be writer. The wanna-be writer. The writer who really is a writer and just wants someone to talk to about the process, someone who understands what it means when you say your main character refuses to do what the plot demands that she do. (I do understand. I had a character who had to be murdered and she just wouldn’t die. So I wrote a “cheating prologue” and let her live as long as she wanted to because the cheating prologue told the reader she was going to get dead eventually, so be patient.

See, you understand what I just said. It makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Maybe someday it will. If it never does, then you may have to face a hard fact: you do not have a fiction mind.

Hmmmm, should I change the name of this blog to Fiction Mind?

I’m writing this blog because there are no blogs out there about creative writing. No place for the writer to turn to help with writing blocks, snags, crunch points.

Yeah, sure. Pop “creative writing” in your browser and stand back for the deluge. So why read mine instead of or even in addition to all the others out there?

I’m writing it because no one else has my unique insights into the craft of fiction.

Closer to the truth, if arrogant. Because who blogs with the view that they’re going to regurgitate stuff that’s already out there? Who doesn’t believe they have a unique perspective that the rest of the world is dying to access? Why am I going to be any different? I have something to say and the blog is a convenient, current way to say it.

So, yes, come along for this ride and you will be treated—or subjected—to my thought processes on how fiction works, why it works when it works and why it doesn’t when it doesn’t.

Who am I that anyone would care? I’ve written a few books and short stories and I’ve taught creative writing in a wide variety of venues for about thirty years, a number that shocks me, too. I started in mystery fiction, but my taste is eclectic and I’ve helped many writers in many genres over the years to hone their craft and realize their dreams of finishing a novel.

Thirty years of teaching fiction writing have not jaded me. I still get a thrill when a new student comes into a class with a germ of an idea that he loves and has hopes for. I get excited when a student with a published book wins an award and then (as just happened) gets the rave review of a lifetime. I want to bring out the best in my writers, to help them realize their visions. To this end, I read and watch like a writer.

In this blog, I’ll talk about what I’m reading, what I’m watching on TV or in movies, and what is happening among my various writing students. As I write, I’ll begin to notice patterns and I’ll organize the blog according to writing problems or writing elements, so that a searcher can find thoughts on, say, character development or subplots.

Writing is problem solving. Every novel presents problems to be solved and writers who have gone before have faced the same problems and solved them. I’ll talk about how they did that and maybe you who are working on fiction now can learn from their decisions.

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