I found a few of my “Swift as Mercury” columns that used to run over at Scryptic Studios, this nifty website for comic book writers.Drew Melbourne invited me to do a column, and then it folded. Go ahead and blame me for it if you want.
SWIFT AS MERCURY
#1 – We Are Beginning to See The Lay of the Land
File under: Making it work
Transmitted on the frequency of: Rancid – “Antennas”
Ah, mercury! That most morphous of metals! The materia prima from which all matter is formed! The god of magic, speed and glib-tongued schemers, the psychopomp of souls and messenger of dreams.
A good story should have the substance of metal but the fluidity of liquid. It should trick you from seeing the ending, but delight you in delivering on its premise. SWIFT AS MERCURY examines the relationship between shifting, polymorphous ideas, and the shape they take in the stories that contain them.
There will also be bad puns. Welcome, welcome, all! Or both.
Rolling over the landscape of America’s suburbs for the last few decades came the modular houses: structurally sound, but hollow of personality. The perfect home for the perfect American soul, scoured out by two world wars, and hungry for all the beautiful lies of the future.
We like to think we’re wonderfully intelligent and jaded by the media pouring into our lives every day of this 21st century life, but Raymond Chandler wrote a disenchanted Philip Marlowe in the ‘30s and ‘40s, sifting the grit from that most smooth and shiny of American ideals, HOLLYWOOD!TM Holden Caufield had the same lousy reaction to that crumby bunch of phonies while lamenting innocence lost. For both characters, that innocence is seldom stolen or murdered so much as it’s tarted up layer by layer in false glamour, until eventually, it loses its moral credit and joins the pack of insinceres who strive for vain, ignoble goals.
In taking a writing class, you may come to the opinion that it’s a skill with much to learn and little to teach — which is to say, one learns formal structures like story (what happens) plot (how it happens) and theme (why it happens), but none of the shamanism attendant to the actual sweat of writing. And with the occasional exception, I’ve had good classes, and good teachers, but much of the craft’s real lessons can’t be illuminated, only illustrated. It takes the experience of discovery in the context of one’s own work to add a third dimension to the education.
Therefore, I’m of the mind that it’s far more important to have good senses about whether the story works on its own terms, and not whether it invokes a justifiable inciting event to churn out another by-the-numbers book. You shouldn’t have to think about plot, because it arises when you string up the high, hearty, beating and bleeding moments that make the story what it is, and then fill in the gaps that take you from one to the next.
The only book I’ve ever read that really captured lessons for the writer was Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, a collection of essays not on what writing is, or how to write, but simply, how to keep your eyes open, how to stay in character, what tempting pitfalls to avoid, what distant aims to have your eyes on, and how to divine your work from the clues it gives you.
The formalities? Yeah, they’re great for those moments when you surface from your tale and take a look around to make sure you’re on the right track, but they’re already implicit in any working story. The synthetic lessons of a writing class are for architecture. The organic lessons of the writing process are physiology. You know a narrative works because the beast either stands up and breathes, or it’s dead because its lungs don’t work. Its appendix won’t be nearly so intrusive as the beams that pull your story’s walls into the rigid shape of the classroom blueprint.
Some stories are snakes. Some stories are foxes. Some stories are owls. Some stories are elephants. Each should gestate from a gamete of an idea into its own form. Don’t stick with the class(ic) three-act body unless it fits your needs. A cozy homecoming yarn should not necessarily have the same structure, even in broad terms, as a bank-heist ripper. Nor should it necessarily not have the same structure. It all depends on the effect you’re aiming to achieve.
If the narrative works, you know it works, and it works, and that’s what makes you say it’s good, not pride or preference or the need for validation. It WORKS. You know when you can do it because it’s done.
Examine why you think it works. Be your own harshest critic, so your editor won’t have to be. It’s too easy to become a literary version of an American Idol audition, where a self-delusional maniac pitches a tantrum after a horrible performance, and has never even considered the possibility that Simon Cowell will tell her the truth; she can’t sing. The written voice, like the audible one, is something everyone uses, though the difference between writing a story and sending text messages is the difference between singing an aria and ordering lunch. There’s far less fooling yourself when you can’t play guitar or draw (though lord knows there’s plenty of that, too).
Remember, too, that being your own harshest critic means to also be hard enough to acknowledge what’s good in the writing, even if you’re not 100% happy with it. You have to be honest with yourself about what does and doesn’t work. For the record, I can’t play guitar after 10 years, and my drawing skills flattened out long ago.
Everyone has flashes of inspiration wherein they snap down a line or conflict that would make Shakespeare proud. The trick in becoming Shakespeare is to repeat the performance enough times. Consistent greatness might elude us, but at least we’ve aimed for the moon. Just keep your head right, your heart alive, and your empathy on wide.
I read “Watership Down” for the first time last year. I’d heard only that it’s a novel about rabbits trying to travel a few miles to a new home. That’s it. They get chased by predators, join (and flee) a couple of other rabbit warrens, and finally settle in a nice patch with their new wives. Sounds like kids’ stuff, right? Well, it is, in that there’s no questionable content. I think the raciest it gets is one rabbit telling another to ‘eat shit’ in rabbit-language…
But holy mackerel, is it ever intense! Brilliant characters, terrifying scenes, skin-of-your-teeth escapes, separations, vicious battles…the author, Richard Adams, performs brilliantly, because he keeps in mind it’s a nature tale, and nature preys on the weak. The rabbits are anthropomorphized, but they’re still rabbits, with rabbit concerns and irrationalities. Every time Adams introduces a threat, he terrifies you with the possibility that someone’s not going to hop away from it. He sells the danger every time. And when nature steps back, and some rabbits do act like humans, that’s when things get really creepy, illustrating just how screwed-up humanity’s actions seem when removed from the egocentric plane of our self-justification.
It works because it’s a nature tale, and Adams doesn’t back away from that in weaving a rabbit mythology or lapinosociological experiments. A natural existence involves a lot of warily scanning the landsape while you’re hungry, cold and tired. He sells that, and it works, this epic quest to find a home.
And really, who doesn’t want to see some poor bunnies find a safe place to sleep?
I hold a superstititon that studying Robert McKee’s Story lures writers into crafting a perfectly sound, reliable, drearily familiar work. McKee honed the three-act film to a science, but writing is an art, and the furthest we should define its parameters is within the bounds of the humanities. If you cookie-cut your scripts according to formulas, however sound, you’ll end up with modular housing.
And that’s fine if you’re writing for yuppies, who as near as I can tell, are the only ones living in cul-de-sacs with dogloos in the backyard, and reading Michael Crichton novels. But if you’re like me, the only thing that works for you is to dig into those big, bleeding, meaty scenes where everyone’s been skinned and all the bids are on the table. Those are what a story is about. That’s when we find out the name of the game, my lad.
Mind you, McKee has plowed acres of laude, and I can’t even get a book about spandex-clad thugs beating each other up published, so common sense would deem him the master to heed. Maybe if the work is going to be good, it will be good, and if bad, then bad, and all of McKee’s lessons just tighten the chops to actualize the work’s potential to its limit.
But if, like me, you’re suspicious of that kind of thing, find the shape that works for you, and use only the tools that render it best.