Friday, March 12, 2010

When It All Comes Down

There's a Hoyt Axton song, first part of which goes:

When it all comes down/
I hope it doesn't land on you/
When the truth is found/
I hope it will be true to you.

All I'm sayin' is have a nice day/
I hope it doesn't rain on your parade/
An' when it all comes down/
I hope it doesn't land on you.

Always liked that one. And while out walking the dogs today in the cold rain -- so much for our brief flirtation with a sunny and warm March -- I reflected some on a post I made to Rory's blog, regarding writing. I'm not sure of what his position was, you can never really be sure, but at the end of his post, it sounded as if he was admonishing writers to stick to what they knew, and not to extrapolate from something small they experienced to something large they hadn't. You could fool the shallow folks, he indicated, but the ones who'd gone deep would know.

Generally good advice, but not entirely on the mark. If you write fiction, you have to extrapolate or you can't do it. If you have a bad guy who is a serial killer and you've never actually killed anybody yourself, then there is a certain leap you have to make.

I don't think Thomas Harris ever fried up any person's liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, but Hannibal Lector was plumb scary, in the book and in the movie version of Silence of the Lambs.

Nearly as I can tell, nobody on this planet has ever been on a space truck infested with nine-foot-tall xenomorphs that laid their eggs down somebody's throat, either, but Alien was a pretty scary gotcha! movie.

Without a leap of imagination, you can't write science fiction or fantasy. What? An elf? No such thing! A dragon? Please!

Quantifying pain is also tricky. I loved my grandma, but when she passed away in her nineties, that didn't hurt me as much as having to put my dog down. Is that a callous thing to say? I don't think so. Grandma's mind was gone and she'd had a long and comfortable life. My dog was suffering but her brain was still working fine. And I was responsible for the dog.

Some folks suffer more than others. What is small to one will be unbearably large to another. On the outside looking in, you don't know how it feels to be them. If you cannot imagine ever pulling the plug on yourself, then you can't truly understand somebody who does.

Doesn't mean your hangnail is equal to somebody's amputated leg, certainly, nor angst the same as terror, but it does mean that the human condition can be used as a basis, and because we have abilities most of God's other critters don't have, that research can make up for a lack of personal experience. Good writers do it all the time. Even I have done it well enough to fool folks in occupations far from mine into believing I was one of them.

An actor can bring tears by thinking of something sad. The physiology and psychology of that emotion can't be measured exactly, but when they wire somebody up, the machines can't tell the difference between a real experience and one from the imagination. The brain plays it the same way.

I know people who swear they always know when somebody is lying. Or that they can't be gulled by a guy writing under a woman's pseudonym, or vice-versa, or that no writer who hasn't experienced first hand the real nitty-gritty of____________(fill in the blank) could possibly put one over on them.

Which I simply don't believe. You might not be able to fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool them some of the time, otherwise I and a lot of folks I know wouldn't be in business.

The old rule for writing is, If you don't know it, don't say it. But the codicil is, If you don't know it and you need to say it, learn it.

Sturgeon's Law still holds, to be sure, but there is a lot of truth to be found in fiction -- if you know how to look and listen.


Some guy said...

On the knowing-when-people-are-lying tangent... I read once that "they" did a study on the subject, testing the general public, cops (some of whom sometimes think that they're particularly good at detecting lies), etc. Interestingly enough, everyone did the same except for the secret service, who were actually able to detect when people were lying a significant part of the time.

Steve Perry said...

Yep. And there are people who study faces, who can catch micro-expressions, and like good poker players, sometimes pick up a tell that lets them know. Paul Ekman has done books and how-to-videos, and an expert can edge his percentages up into the high percent range, viz how somebody is feeling.

How you feel and how you lie are different.

And sociopaths and pathological liars -- and good poker players -- often show little or no emotion, and all that stuff about not making eye contact or crossing your arms, and the like doesn't hold.

I came up with a verbal art, fugue, in which people can beat a lie detector because they parse the questions exactly and stick to the nth degree of truth. If you don't believe it's a lie, or don't think about it one way or the other? Harder to catch you at it.

Ed said...

If I pick up a fiction book to read for enjoyment then that is it - it's fiction. Doesn't mean I haven't picked up some interesting info or it didn't get me thinking some interesting thoughts on people of tech. If I think something doesn't seem right or off a little that is up to me to let it slide or maybe do a little research if the subject interests me. To me some of what makes some of the fiction I read fun is that the technology written about seems plausable if not now sometime in the future - makes the story more real and fun for me to read. If a writer doesn't interest me after a good chunk of pages then I will try and find something else.

In non fiction, again researching if it interests me and it seems off. Like you wrote in the post we have abilities other critters don't have.

Hoyt Axton --- I still remember that Robert Urich movie Endangered Species - Urich is an ex cop - came from back east. Hoyt is a rancher and local bigwig and some bad government shit is goin on in the sagebrush country - As I remember it - Hoyt has a bad oral hygiene scene while looking in the mirror - yuk - but just deserts.

Some guy said...

I remember fugue from your books. Fun concept, but it struck me as an interesting challenge to portray it in a book, because if two people were riffing high-level fugue, almost by definition the reader couldn't understand the dialogue. So what does the author do? Follow every sentence with "And, by this statement, dear reader, what the character meant was blah blah blah, a subtle response to the previous nuance of...etc." ? Tough.

Travis said...

I had a class in reading people once. One big key was that you had to have an individual norm to compare to. Different folks are, well different. It wasn't about "here's the big secret way to tell" it was, here's little subtle things and when you see a SHIFT to one of these, you know you've found something.

daniele.perkele said...

I totally agree. Of course it is always a good advice, for beginners, not to write about what yo don't know . I've read to much bullshit on books that really makes me sad; however, a writer does need to write about much stuff he hasn't really done, so I'd say, the first rule is "study hard".