Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Writing: God (or the Devil) is in the Details

Depending on who you ask, God or the Devil is in the details.  Doesn't matter to me, as long as I've got the details I need in my stories.

My goal is to write every day.  Some days (most days, really) it's tough, like pulling teeth . . . if I knew what pulling teeth was like.  Regardless, there are many days when I write out a sentence, then sit and stare at it, only to drop my index finger onto the delete/backspace key and wash it all away.  Then I start over, usually rewriting what I just wrote, but hopefully in a slightly different fashion.  At some point, I finally stop arguing with myself over that first sentence and move onto the second.  Go through the same thing, maybe open a new tab online and check something meaningless to distract me, then force myself back to the story at hand, to get the following sentences out, onto the page.  It can be a chore, and for the most part when it is a chore it's something in my subconscious trying to tell me that I don't have the first clue what I need or want to write today.  I rarely listen to that subconscious ghoul and just plow on through until I reach an end point that suffices (not that it's a well-written end point, it's just a point where I feel like something got accomplished, even if it was merely the writing of 500 words of worm-ridden filth).

In these cases, often, the struggle may come from the fact that I don't have the necessary details for the section I'm working on.  This could mean I don't completely understand my characters, so I struggle with how they should react or what they might say.  Or it could be something like what I just encountered, where I needed to include a short news story in my narrative that reported on an ambush of American soldiers during the Vietnam conflict.  Generally, I'm more well-versed in the Vietnam conflict than most, but I can't just pluck details and scenarios from memory.  So, writing that short bit was challenging, and I found myself working to distract myself more often than not.  Since it was a first draft, I worked through it, to have something down as a placeholder, with the broad strokes necessary for the emotional impact the story provides my protagonist, and I knew that, later, I could find the necessary details from an online search or some of the materials I have at home.  It wasn't as if I needed to have the details, at that point, to get the bit written, but in lacking those details I found myself and my ability to write it fluently and efficiently hampered.

Even when writing fiction, research is essential.  Two of my favorite stories have come from doing serious research, before starting to write.  The first was a comic story, "Big Man," which I had published in Unfashioned Creatures: A Frankenstein Anthology, by Red Stylo Media, with art from Gary Fitzgerald.  The call for submissions asked for new, original stories inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  At the time, I'd never read Shelley's classic.  It was a perfect excuse to rectify that omission, and I'm so glad I finally did.  I read the novel over a weekend and began brainstorming ideas.  In the end, I was able to take the idea of the Monster, combine it with my experience living on a fishing island, twenty miles off the coast of Maine, and layer it with something my wife shared about a plot point in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.  From all of that, I wrote an 8-page script that I am incredibly happy with, and which, I feel, hues closely to the themes put forth by Shelley.

The second time a dose of heavy research helped me with a story came during an open call for steampunk tales set in Civil War-era New Orleans, for the anthology New Orleans by Gaslight.  I, basically, knew nothing about steampunk, other than the obvious trappings one comes across online--the advanced science utilizing the technologies of the mid-19th Century time period.  I was unaware of the overall approach to steampunk, that of being more upbeat and more inclusive than the actual era was, of lifting up all peoples through the fictions and the cosplay of this subgenre.
I also knew very little about voudou, but I wanted to include it in my story and also wanted to treat it with respect, rather than utilize hoary cliches from the times I'd seen it on television.  Warren Ellis, around that time, had shared, through his newsletter, a youtube video purporting to show a voudou ritual.  And I also managed to find a good book in the stacks here, at the University of Maine's Fogler Library, where I work--  American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World by Rod Davis.  This was an invaluable resource, which took an open-minded view to voudou rituals and shared details about them that helped inform my story, "You Gotta Give Good."  All of this swirled together, and I came out with a 3400-word story that got a specific shout-out from a reader's review for the anthology, on Amazon.
Without doing the research, there's no way I could have had my story accepted.

Generally speaking, I add details to characters, early in the story, to just try and make them interesting.  Sometimes these details are ones that were thought out beforehand, but more often than not it's just me writing off-the-cuff.  I'm still trying to find these characters and discover who they are, at the opening stages of the writing, so many of the bits I add are just spontaneous thoughts that I got down on paper. 

As I move forward, in the story, these details become more permanent, more a part of who these people are (if they aren't jettisoned, which can happen too).  They feed into the personalities, which in turn, hopefully, feed into the narrative.  Typically, I have an idea of where I'm heading with my story, but it's rather vague with a lot of empty space between here (the opening) and there (the ending).  This affords me not only the opportunity to improvise, but it also keeps me writing.  Even if I'm unsure what exactly happens next, I can push ahead and possibly discover something new and unexpected in the writing. 

The biggest boon that comes from these details often materializes in the end of the story.  For me, at least.  Like I state above, I often have a vague idea of where I'm going.  It helps, and I prefer, to have a point to which you're aiming, when writing, otherwise it can quickly become an unfocused mess.  But, though I may know how I want it to end, I usually don't know the exact way the end will reveal itself.  Having a number of details attached to the characters, in the beginning, has helped me with these endings.  I write slowly (maybe more detailed outlines might be optimal, if I wanted to increase my writing speed), like Indiana Jones methodically working his way through the jungle, wary of enemies and predators, while being careful not to miss some sign that would lead to his next archaeological conquest.  I only think about the next scene, pondering what should happen and how to approach it, and only consider the following one once I've written the scene in front of me.  This can sometimes be frustrating, but something the longer time affords me is the chance to really get to know my characters, and for the details slapped on them, at the outset, to become ingrained within them.  And, quite often, I find the key to writing that final bit in some detail from the opening. 

It happened in my latest short story -- the aged father, now in a nursing home, is a Vietnam veteran.  the timing for this seemed right, and that was my basic thought.  But, in the end, a story about his time in Vietnam, which his middle-aged son found and read in a scrapbook, spurred the son toward the climax I had envisioned from the start.  Without that key news story, which wouldn't have been possible without the detail of the father serving in Vietnam, I would not have found the emotional hook I needed to get the son to move on, with his life.  It was a happy coincidence, but one that came about because I wanted to make the introduction of a character interesting and added details to achieve that. 


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