Wednesday, November 8, 2017

“Why Did You Write This?”

     The news remains drearily predictable, and I have no high philosophical insights about politics or public policy to regale you with this morning (“Does he ever?” rises the mumbling from the peanut gallery), so I thought I might entertain you with some thoughts about why writers of fiction do what we do. It’s freshly on my mind anyway, as another writer who’d just finished Innocents asked me the title question about that novel.

     Fiction writers are as varied as any other walk of life. Our reasons for doing what we do range all over the motivational map. Many would take the title question as an affront, raise one eyebrow in a silent expression of haughty disdain, and stride purposefully away – and not because the answer is “obvious,” for whatever value of “obvious” you might care to apply. That having been said, the answers tend to cluster into categories:

  • Money: Robert A. Heinlein maintained to the end of his life that he wrote “to buy groceries.” I never believed it, but it was his consistent answer to the question, and no doubt it would apply to many other writers.
  • Entertainment: Many a writer simply likes to entertain, and likes being known as a capable entertainer. It’s the same motive that causes some partygoers to tell endless jokes and vignettes, thus becoming known as “the life of the party:” “You can’t throw a decent party without him.”
  • Message: For all the scorn that’s been poured on “message fiction,” there are many writers who write to promote a particular view of Man and reality. Military SF writer Tom Kratman put it thus: “I write to illuminate eternal verities.”

     Those categories probably envelop the great majority of writers’ reasons for writing fiction. But there are some that don’t fit in any of them. My reason for writing Innocents was one of them: curiosity.

     I chose the critical plot element of the book before I wrote it, of course: the emergence of a biotechnologically enabled subculture of perversion and enslavement focused on futanari. But I didn’t want to make the story a simple crusade against this new evil. Instead, I decided to impose one of the “products” of that evil industry on a good man as his personal problem: “What do I do with this girl?” It was only then that I set my fingers to the keys and began to write.

     But even then, I had no clear idea of where the story would go. I had to write it to find out.

     I had a gaggle of useful characters already “in stock” from previous stories: Larry Sokoloff and Father Raymond Altomare, from Shadow of a Sword; and Dean Amanda Hallstrom and her students at Athene Academy, from “A Place of Our Own” and “One Small Detail.” I’d explored their motivations and reactions in those earlier tales, and I was curious how they would cope with the two new Marquee Characters: Fountain, the story’s “problem,” and Trish McAvoy, Larry’s seemingly “difficult” colleague.

     There you have it: I didn’t know how the characters I’d loaded into Innocents would proceed with this new problem. I wrote the novel to find out. To do so, of course, I had to get even more deeply into the mindsets, assumptions, preferences, and convictions of those characters than I’d gone before. I got to know them to a new and startling depth.

     Georges Simenon, who wrote nearly two hundred novels, had the same underlying motivation. He once spoke of his indispensable conditions for producing one: he had to be completely alone and undisturbed for a couple of weeks – often he took up residence in a hotel – and he had to have a problem whose solution he could not foresee: “Otherwise, it would not be interesting to me.” It spurred him to a degree of productivity few other writers have attained.

     While I don’t aspire to Simenon’s level of output, I can testify to the power of curiosity as a motivating force for a fiction writer. I’m unsure about recommending it widely – writers are as individual as snowflakes, and what works for one could prove poisonous to another – but it’s my necessary fuel, as critical as a good supply of coffee and Oreos.® And for those of you contemplating giving “National Novel Writing Month” a spin, it might be worth exploration. I mean, if you know how the story ends, why bother to begin it, much less finish it?


daniel_day said...

I have written one story, submitted it to ANALOG, and received it back in the mail. Answering your final question, I was able to write the story after the ending had come to me.

SiGraybeard said...

As I barely need mention: I am not a writer. I have asymptotically zero interest in fiction, and while I've read a fair amount of Heinlein, Asimov and other greats, I'm just not a fan of reading fiction. I read most of that nearly 50 years ago when I was a teen.

I do, however, read non-fiction all the time and see that as being in my niche in life because it's largely teaching.

So when a writer says, "I wrote it to see how the characters would react" and don't know what they're going to write before they read it back, that comes across to my little mind as schizophrenic. These characters all exist in your mind, so that's saying different pieces of your mind argue with others.

No disrespect intended, it just doesn't fit any understandings in my brain. I don't see how that can happen.

Which probably goes a long way to explaining why the few times I tried writing short stories they sucked awfully.

I worry that this comes across as criticism rather than the pure confusion - wonder, if you prefer - that I'm really feeling.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Think of it as the inverse of the characterization process, Gray. A writer depicts his characters to the reader by a combination of three methods:
-- What the character does;
-- What the character says;
-- What other characters say about him.

That's how the reader learns about the character's motivations and values. But the writer, if he likes, can invert the process, to wit: I decree that character X shall possess the following motivations and values! Now, given some troublesome, challenging situation, what would he say and do? Surround him with other characters whose motivations and values I've decreed. Now what do they do about and with one another?

The technique might sound schizophrenic, but it works -- and I'm not the only writer who uses it.

SiGraybeard said...

The technique might sound schizophrenic, but it works -- and I'm not the only writer who uses it. Right - I've seen other writers use the same description of their books. I can understand this in terms of you thinking through how the characters would act given all you've defined about them. You're developing the characters in ways that are new to you.

The question then becomes, are you surprised by your characters? Do they say or do things when the book is flowing that you had never envisioned they could or would do? I've seen other writers say that and it goes back into the realm of schizo to me. They talk the way you hear people on the news, saying, "he was such a nice, quiet guy. I'd never think he could do " whatever.

FWIW, just use SiG, like our fine friends with their Sauer partners in NH. You get to save typing two whole letters that way!

Jack Imel said...

I still say you're missing out on something hidden in your mental storage units if you don't at least try to write a complete short story in the form of a collection of sonnets. We take for granted so much of the way we present our creations using words as presenters, but seldom exercise the possible wordology muscles we all have; the arranging of lines and paragraphs dressed out in a whole new dimension. And then when we read aloud those hard-wrought lines, there is a completeness that we never imagined was abiding there. But you are already a successful writer so what could I possibly help you with? God bless your hands... and have you decided to get another dawg?