Wrestling With Angels

I never liked doubt. When I learned about medieval Japanese culture, I imagined myself becoming a super samurai, who could solve problems, write novels and, possibly, impress females, with a single, direct and unhesitatingly lethal sword cut.

Alas, when a problem arises, I’m like that clueless klutz wandering about Home Depot searching for the part, the piece, the tube of goo, the great grand and all-powerful tool. And I never seem to find it. Or, if I do, I fumble around so much, banging this, scraping that and making a mess that it’s only when I’m just about finished that I finally remember what direction to turn the screwdriver. I have the greatest admiration for those who can fix things, but also I disagree with those who preach goal-oriented behavior, or who equate intellect with problem-solving, because the only thing worse than finding yourself incapable of solving a problem (world peace, anyone?) is dealing with the cosmic let-down that descends just have your turn on the water and discovery that, yes, you’ve replaced the stopper in the toilet and it works okay but…the sink is still clogged up.

Or, as I like to put it, you pray to heaven for a sandwich with hot corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and a slice of Swiss cheese, and it’s delivered on white bread.

As for impressing females, I confess that I will never figure that out. I blame this on  myself. I remember that scary time in middle school when girls transformed themselves from pesky annoyances to the most important beings on the planet whose approval of me was a matter of even greater importance than life and death. Between my heart-thumping, face-burning, swoons and pratfalls, I noticed that I really couldn’t expect myself to appeal to every female because not every female appealed to me. Whenever I tried to drag myself up from despair and systematize and catalog exactly what would be the ideal object of affection, I was surprised by how this person (to whom I am now married) was, to put it honestly, beyond category. Love really is the most important thing that happens to us, and, even if we try to explain it away as an evolutionary evolved practice by which we further the species, nurture the weak and keep florists in business, we’re not supposed to understand it as much as be grateful for what love helps us become.

Writing novels has never been a single sword cut. Not once. I start with an idea of a scene or situation, or a character with a challenge, and then I go backward and discover how this scene arose. Then I go forward to find out what happens next, only to skid to a halt and spin my wheels for a while because I have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Then I become frustrated and depressed because, even though I once gave some simple, easy plot-boiling strategies when I taught novel writing, I am incapable of following my own advice. So a rapidly sink into despair because I can’t just sit down and POUND IT OUT. I need a flickering beam to light the way ahead and, when I’m in the dark, I become dark.

I don’t turn to drink, or coffee, because I tried those during my misspent youth and they don’t work and they make you feel even worse. I’ll turn the computer on and play entirely too much solitaire. Just when I’m certain that my mood will never change, I get some kind of great idea. The way ahead is as bright as an airport runway! Pull back on the throttle and up we go!

This emotional power glide fades as soon as I admit that what I really want to happen next in my story is impossible, or, at best, highly unlikely. Now, this, in itself, is not a bad thing: readers turn to fiction because they don’t want it to be like real life. They want to experience vicariously situations that would normally send them running for Mama. They want to meet people who might typically scare them, intimidate them, or send them into a tailspin of envy. They want to fix the toilet and unclog the sink!

So I have to go back and figure out how I can either endow my character with the ability to pull off this unlikely thing, or play a card that I call “H.G. Wells’ Rule.” Wells, one of the grandfathers of science fiction, held that a reader will accept one miracle in a story, but not two or three. In practice, a reader will accept just about anything that is impossible if the reader wants to believe that the impossible can happen, should happen, must happen, will happen in the world you’ve created.

A technique that can be employed is similar to a that of a live magic show: you set up the illusion (the magician explains what will happen with “patter” or build up to it with a series of more intricate, interesting and beautiful illusions) ” employ misdirection (that is, involve the reader in an exciting, emotional moment with your hero, or an important character, so the reader doesn’t have the chance to question what you’re up to) and then unveil the illusion with a bit of dazzle. The impossible happens, dreams come true, your hero beats the bad guy at his own game, not because these are the conventions of story-telling, but because these things make “sense” in the world you’ve created.

Again, it’s hard for me to follow my own advice. I muddle through. I try all kinds of things. I wrestle and…if you believe there is a muse with sacred powers, or a God that watches over the tormented souls of struggling writers, you cast your imagination forward to that wonderful moment when you hold your finished book (printed and bound is FAR better than some digital blur on a reader) and…nobody can see the parts where you were paused, faltered, doubted yourself because you had absolutely no idea what to do.

Your book is almost like life itself: one thing happens after another.

But it is better than life because the right things happen, for the right reasons.

 

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