Sunday, March 09, 2008

No, What I Meant Was ...

A quick aside on writing/critique groups/telephone/face-to-face discussions and sex.

Writing, at its best, is a so-so method of communication. Lot of nuance is lost because all you have are the words. Like looking at a steak under glass -- you can see it, but the aroma, the warmth, the texture, they aren't there to be had.

A phone call with somebody you know offers the words, and the tone, cadence, rhythm of the speakers, but it's still not perfect.

A conversation over a beer in a quiet pub is much better, because you get the words, the sounds, and the gestures and expressions, as well as pheromones. Even so, it's not telepathy, so its just a better approximation of communication, because touch, save with somebody special, is very limited.

Good sex is much better, but again, somewhat limited if your preferences run to monogomy and sockets but not plugs ...

I bring this up because I was reading a blog and a post by somebody I know a little bit, and his words on the screen aren't getting his message across as well as they might. Because I have talked to the man, I think I know more what he really means, but to people who haven't sat down with him, what he says might not resonate the same way.

One of his posters, who could be a very bright and insightful person, is even more murky, and that's because I haven't met the fellow and his words are -- to me -- unclear.

When the only tool you have is written language, it can be like cutting down a large tree with a pocketknife. Possible, but not an easy task if you have someplace you need to be soon.

In SF&F writing critique groups -- gatherings that can be helpful or hurtful to a writer, depending on how well-built they are -- there are two common models: Clarion and Milford.
Both of these come out of Damon Knight's and Kate Wilhelm's traditions, and the differences don't really matter to this discussion. What they have in common is that writers sit around in a circle and take turns offering comments on the story they've read.

Generally, the writer sits mute and is only allowed to speak after everybody is done slaughtering his or her pig, save for elements of fact that readers might get wrong. If you write, say, that our sun is a G-class star and somebody points out that this in error, you can correct them. Like that. Otherwise, you sit on the hot seat and take it, and you only get your turn at the end, during which it is considered bad form to argue overmuch with what has been said. You might not like their opinions, but that's what they had to offer. (Some of them will likely have value, if you listen carefully enough. Some comments won't be useful. Some might even be mean-spirited. There is a human kink that pops up from time to time: It isn't enough that you succeed; your enemy must also fail. It's that either/or dichotomy: If I'm good, then s/he who opposes me must be bad. Not necessarily so, of course, but you have to deal with the mindset.)

A comment that newbie writers often make after their story has been flayed is, "Well, okay, I know I said that, but what I meant was ..." whereupon they explain.

This gets a pretty standard response: "If that's what you meant, then that is what you should have said ..."

As a writer, all you have are the words, and either a reader groks what you meant or they don't. If you sell the story and it goes forth into the world, it must stand or fall on its own -- you won't be there to explain the answers to a reader's questions when they arise.

If it isn't on the page, they likely won't know what you meant.

That bears repeating: If it isn't on the page, they likely won't know what you meant.

(If you are good enough, you can hint at things, and a reader will make the connection. But if you are that good, I'm not the guy to be offering you advice anyhow, so you can skip the rest of this.)

People will bring their own axes to everything you ever write, even your diary if you die and somebody finds it. They will read your stuff with a built-in bias, no matter how open-minded or objective they might try to be. We are all products of biology and experience, nature and
nurture, and we crack any book with a personal history that will shade everything we read.

On your best day, happily post-coital, with a custom-made pen and fresh coffee, pieces you write will go on to be misunderstood. People will read things into it that aren't there, and they will miss things that would seem obvious to anybody with two dendrites to spark at each other. That's the nature of the medium, and you have to know this. It's more like horseshoes than pinpoint sub-MOA same-hole rifle-shooting.

The John Lennon quote, when asked about the real meaning of of a stanza, to the effect of, "Well, it rhymed with 'Queen,' didn't it?"

There is a screenwriting book by Linda Seger, How to Make a Good Script Great. The premise is, there are so many things that Hollywood can do to screw up a script along the path to a finished movie, so many people who, in the collaborative process, can lay hands on the things and alter it, that the only way to get a good movie made is to start with a great script. That if you start out with a script that is merely good, by the time it runs the gauntlet and gets slashed at by all those who get a free cut, what you have won't have much oomph left.

It's an interesting concept. Given how things get done down in LaLaLand, it is amazing that good movies ever get made, much less great ones.

This is how it is with your writing in general. Since people are going to bring their own axes, they will misunderstand things; best it be as clear and clean and tight as you can make it before you let it out of the house.

You won't be there to tell them what you meant. If it isn't on the page, it will hard for them to get it.


Kai Jones said...

I need to copy this on the board 10 times. It's just as true for the non-fiction I write as for fiction.

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

Part of the way I approach writing poetry (as opposed to prose) is that I _want_ to leave space for people to make interpretations; I try not to spell things out too clearly. It requires not being too attached to what I "mean". I expect my poems to mean different things to different people.

People get stuff out of my poems that I never put in them. Sometimes I have to wonder where they're getting it.

Steve Perry said...

Poetry is different. Narrative prose is designed to tell a story, and if you are the writer, you have to have one in mind or you can't tell it well.

Yeah, you can do it as a painting or a pencil sketch, maximum or minimum, but it has to be something a view can recognize and relate to, else it flops. The critics might love you if you write a thousand page novel and never use the letter "e" in it, but readers will shake their heads and look elsewhere.

We have way too many pretentious assholes already, no reason to encourage another one ...

Not to say that there might not be depths you aren't aware of consciously, things you put in using the uber-editor and friendly neighborhood atman.

Nor to say that you must *know your theme* before you get started. Sometimes that's only revealed when you are done.

But people want to read stories that have a beginning, middle, and end. They want to see protagonists overcome obstacles on the path to do something. Certainly in genre fiction they do.

Further away from that, and the less care in crafting it thus, the more apt you are to lose your reader.

A great tale will buy you a lot of slack when it comes to bejeweled prose; likewise, enough clever wordsmithery will sometimes see you through a so-so story. But in the end, the stories people read and remember, the ones that make them laugh or cry or both, are the ones that, in effect, start out, "Once upon a time," and if they don't end with "And they lived happily ever after." had better have set it up real well why the hero and heroine get killed at the end instead.

It's like the Rule of Three. Not one, not four, but three. It's the nature of our kind that we start to lose count after that -- you can see three at a glance. It's one, two, three ... many ...

It's why A3 was such a suck of a movie. After A2, in which Ridley and Hicks and Newt go through so much, the guy who did A3 killed them off in the opening scene. He thought it was clever.

I thought it was as bad a story telling gimmick as ever done ...

Maybe that's just me. But I don't think so ...