Saturday, September 1, 2018

Being A Proper Authoritarian

     No, this will be an entirely nonpolitical piece. What’s on my mind this morning is a phenomenon I’ve long wondered whether any other writer shares: the sense that we lack complete authority over our own works-in-progress.

     The late Florence King, in one of her book review columns, wrote that it’s the role of an author to be an authoritarian. However, I don’t remember what she was commenting on at the time and can no longer find the link. What I’m thinking of is the curious authority of the words themselves, once they’re in the manuscript.

     There are several necessities involved in putting a novel together:

  1. Settling on a theme;
  2. Imagining a plot that would dramatize it;
  3. Conceiving of characters suited to acting out the plot;
  4. Composing a series of events to generate the necessary clashes;
  5. Setting those events in a timeline that’s both plausible and compelling;
  6. Working out both the resolution and the pointers forward into the unwritten future.

     Yes, it’s a lot of work – and after you’ve managed all six of those steps, you still have to write the BLEEP!ing thing. So it’s understandable that a writer will be reluctant to do it, or any significant parts of it, more than once in a given novel-project. But sometimes it’s imperative...yet at those moments it can be even harder to face than usual.

     An example: I submitted my first draft of On Broken Wings to an excellent free-lance editor – Rafe, if you’re out there anywhere, I hope you’re well and happy – who gigged the manuscript for a number of minor blemishes and one major one. The major one involved a love scene, which had cost me enormous effort to write. Rafe criticized it as unbearably sappy. While I eventually came to agree with Rafe’s assessment, I was massively reluctant to resculpt that scene. Indeed, it seemed impossible.

     Why? For a supremely bizarre reason: it was there. It was “in the past.” My characters had already acted it out. That alone made it seem immutable.

     Pretty weird, eh, Gentle Reader? I mean, you already knew that I’m fairly strange, but...well, never mind. My reluctance to excise the offending scene and write a replacement was stronger than you can imagine. I eventually did, of course, to the considerable improvement of the book. Still, that bizarre sense of the author’s lack of authority over his own work has recurred on several subsequent occasions, including in my most recent novel, Innocents, and in Experienced, the sequel under construction.

     It probably has something to do with the characterization process. If your characters are “strong” – i.e., if you have a vivid, nicely detailed conception of them that propels how they respond to the crap you put them through – substantially altering a particular scene can make you feel as if you’re being untrue to them. It can be tough to retain your conception of your characters, especially your Marquee characters, when you have to put a scene significant to your vision of them “under the knife.”

     What is more valuable to a novel than vividly conceived characters? You certainly wouldn’t want your major protagonists and antagonists to be weakly colored. Yet the “stronger” they are in that sense, the more likely it is that you’ll need to do major surgery on one or more scenes in your first draft: not merely rewording a few sentences here and there, but removing the originally narrated action and replacing it entirely. And that requires being a proper authoritarian: declaring to your characters that “Thou shalt not behave the way I originally had you acting,” and redoing their deeds and / or the scene in which they occur.

     It strikes me that this is less likely to be a significant concern to short-story writers. In a short story, the animating idea is all; the characters can’t be allowed a lot of room for hijinks. However, we do have one classic and very funny case available: the famous “tandem story” of Laurie and Carl:

Rebecca and Gary
English 44A
Creative Writing
Prof Miller

In-class Assignment for Wednesday:

     Today we will experiment with a new form called the tandem story. The process is simple. Each person will pair off with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. One of you will then write the first paragraph of a short story. The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story. The first person will then add a third paragraph, and so on back and forth. Remember to reread what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent. The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.

     At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The camomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked camomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So camomile was out of the question.

     Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. “A.S. Harris to Geostation 17,” he said into his transgalactic communicator. “Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far...” But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.

     He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4. “Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel.” Laurie read in her newspaper one morning. The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth—when the days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no newspapers to read, no television to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things around her. “Why must one lose one’s innocence to become a woman?” she pondered wistfully.

     Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the Anu’udrian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles. The dim-witted wimpy peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through Congress had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race. Within two hours after the passage of the treaty the Anu’udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. With no one to stop them they swiftly initiated their diabolical plan. The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the inconceivably massive explosion which vaporized Laurie and 85 million other Americans. The President slammed his fist on the conference table. “We can’t allow this! I’m going to veto that treaty! Let’s blow ‘em out of the sky!”

     This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic, semi-literate adolescent.

     Yeah? Well, you’re a self-centered tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium.

     You total $*&.

     Stupid %&#$!.

[Professor Miller: A+ I really liked this one!]

     I would have loved to be a fly on the wall the next time those two encountered one another. But back to my main query: Are there any other writers out there who’ve had the sense of lacking the author’s proper authority over your own work? The public wants to know!


Linda Fox said...

I hadn't thought about it, but that might be what is keeping me from finishing the revisions on The Lost Part of Me. I even finished a couple of short stories, am midway through others, and have finishing the preliminary planning on the next book.

All because I'm stuck trying to excise some words from that darned book, and replace them with others that work.

I'm going to have to think about this today.

Margaret Ball said...

On moderately bad days the characters storm through the ms informing me that they never said anything like the vapidities I've ascribed to them.

On really bad days I'm reduced to begging the characters not to hurt me.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) I've had days like those, Margaret. Both sorts. Recently, even. And I'm usually able to overcome them. But it's hard to type with a pistol in one hand and a kukri in the other. Trust me on that.