3000 words about the Peloponnesian War

[September 2006] Now there’s a subject guaranteed to send most of my potential readers fleeing for the hills, warding off flashbacks of grade school history essays.

This month, I want to write about my perception of my evolution as a writer. I had lunch last week with a guy who works across the street from my office who is also a writer. He’s just starting out—recently submitted a story for the first time—so he wanted to pick my brain and bounce some ideas off me. As I waxed philosophical on the subject of writing, certain ideas formed in my mind in a way that I hadn’t thought about them before.

When I started writing six or seven years ago (after a long hiatus), my mind was awash with ideas. Some turned into plots, but the results weren’t stories in the same way that I think about stories these days. They were simply plots. Maybe clever ones, maybe not, but readers probably came away from them without learning anything about the characters being propelled along by the plot. And that’s just what they were: puppets awash in a sea of plot, no more involved in their destiny than someone aboard a rubber raft being tossed about on a raging river.

Occasionally, when inspiration failed—or ideas failed to convert into stories—I’d go 9trolling through the submission guidelines reported by places like Hellnotes, Gila Queen and ralan.com. I focused on themed anthologies, because I wasn’t looking for a market for stories—I was looking for stories for a market.

I regarded these guidelines as writing challenges. Homework. Write 4000 words about a crime that takes place aboard a space station. Up to 6000 words set in a bookstore. Concoct a story using the unlikely pairing of cockroaches and vampires, or one featuring absinthe.

Sometimes nothing happened in response to my literary homework, and that was okay. I didn’t write about bloodsucking cockroaches or psychotropic liquor. (The stupid phrase “absinthe makes the heart grow fonder” kept popping up in my head. I probably wasn’t alone in this.) But often something did happen, and I’d end up with a story. As I wrote, I’d periodically click on the “word count” tool, a process that reminded me of tapping my pencil tip on every single word on a sheet of foolscap to see if I’d met the requisite length.

I used these “assignments” to hone my skills. At the end of the submission period, I’d turn in my work and have it graded. Often, the course was simply pass/fail, but sometimes I’d get my paper back with some helpful markings on it, or occasionally the teacher would ask for a resubmit after revision. Sometimes the work was deemed good enough to hang on the bulletin board with a silver star next to it.

A few of those early stories were essentially given away. Published in places where no one read them and little or no compensation changed hands. Just as well. While they might have been well written from a grammatical/style perspective, they were sorely lacking in characterization. I recently renovated one of those early efforts and ended up with a story that is 25% longer and ten times better simply because I figured out who the protagonist was and what his experience meant to him, and why. The linear plot is essentially unaltered, but the story grew a heart along the way.

As I was talking to my new acquaintance, I struggled to put this into words. He had a sheet of paper with dozens of brief story synopses. He would read one out loud and ask if the idea sounded good to me. By way of response, I asked him: What is your intent in telling this story? Is the technology, futuristic vision or ideology what you are trying to convey, or are you interested in showing how the things in your 30-word plot affect the protagonist? Could you substitute the science/dogma with something else and end up with essentially the same tale, or is that integral to what you want to accomplish?

I still get writing assignments these days in the form of invitations to contribute to an anthology. Because I’m congenial and easily flattered, I usually agree. However, these days, when I am delivered with a notion for a story, my first thought isn’t about the space station or the bookstore or even the hallucinogenic booze. I start with the person or people I want to write about. Figure out who they are, what they want, and what their issues are. Once I understand that, I deliver them to the situation required by the anthology theme and see how they react. I no longer want to write stories where the main character could be substituted with someone completely different and the story would essentially remain unchanged.

Sometimes that gets me in trouble, because I occasionally end up writing a story in a different genre than what’s expected for the book—or in no discernible genre whatsoever. I have a short story in my drawer that I happen to think is an excellent character study that explores a fairly profound, universally accessible idea and examines how the character adjusts—or fails to adjust—with his new reality. I can’t for the life of me figure out what kind of story it is, though. On the surface, it seems to be near-future science fiction, but the truth is that the sci-fi element is merely a trapping. I could surgically remove it and replace it with something more contemporary and end up with much the same story.

Getting back to my new acquaintance. What I tried to express was that the blurb-ish ideas he was presenting me with didn’t tell me anything about the stories he had written about them. I could have taken those germs and written stories entirely different from what he had conceived. It’s all in the execution and the intent of the author. When he was telling me about scientists discovering sentient computers that work around errors in programming, he was excited by the technology while I was wondering what the scientists were thinking. Both approaches are valid, and half a dozen years ago I probably would have written about the technology. The scientists would have been two nameless, faceless guys in white coats mouthing words as they were swept away in the torrent of plot.

But my years of apprenticeship as a writer have taught me something. You can fascinate readers with plot, but if you really want to connect with them you need more. You can put all the reptiles you want on a aircraft, but unless there’s at least one person aboard that flight that you can get readers to connect with, all you have is, well, (expletive deleted) snakes on a (expletive deleted) plane.

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