Author's Note: These are transcripts of my notes that I took while going through this project. As such, the post below may not make a lot of sense to the casual reader who doesn't have a copy of Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. So, if you click on that link, you can go get yourself a copy. Or, don't. It's up to you. But I'm going to be transcribing my handwritten notes for myself (and others who have the book) and I won't be using a lot of context to back it up.
CHAPTER 2: The Ecosystem of Story
Awesome. Amen to that.
“Stories are animals” is slightly more fanciful than I’m used to thinking about my work. But okay, I’ll roll with it for now.
These are the things that make up a story.
Characterization: punting to Chapter 5
Point of View: I really like first person
Setting: Punting to Chapter 6
Events/Situations: --the plot—Punting to Chapter 4
Dialogue: “snippets of speech.” I think that dialogue can also establish character. Maybe we’ll get to that later.
Description: "Details that set the scene and can be used to create tone."
Exposition—“relates needed information by telling it directly to the reader.” Hmm. Not sure I’ve ever used that in that particular way.
Style: The way the story is told.
A Closer Look at Some of the Elements
Point of View—who tells your story and how close you get to their perspective depends in part on point of view.
First Person: “I” is the narrator.
Second Person: “You” is the narrator. The reader is in the brain of the narrator experiencing life as that person does.
I don’t like 2nd person for exactly the reason why Nick Mamatas cites. It’s very awkward for me to write in, as well.
Third Person: I prefer third person omniscient. But some of my best work was done in first person. It’s a toss up.
Point of View: “Subjective Versus Objective” on “Roving” by Nick Mamatas.
Oh, boy. Nick. Let’s see what he has to say.
Side note: look into his novel “Bullettime” It sounds very cool.
Okay, that was a really good, concise essay on Point of View. It didn’t enlighten overmuch, but there’s a lot of good fiddly bits in there to think about.
Dialogue: can perform many functions: Ah, good, here we go.
Convey a mood
Convey a mood
Reveal character traits or motivation
Move the plot forward/increase the pace
There’s more here, but yes, to me, I think dialogue is terribly important. “Dialogue is meant to emulate real speech, not reproduce it.” I completely agree.
“Pushing information that you think the reader needs into dialogue may be a ‘tell’ that you are having trouble with your story.”
There are a couple of Turkey City terms that cover this very thing. Of course, Michael Crichton wrote all of his exposition in dialogue, so, there’s that.
Really good notes on regional dialect. I’m all over the place when it comes to that. But I’ve used the suggested method that Jeff outlines before in third person and it worked out well.
Tagging—in general, I agree. I try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rule about not tagging at all, but I think there are a couple of exceptions—like early in a story, before everyone is established—when one or two tags is okay. Even then, they have to be within reason. I don’t know who first wrote “...he ejaculated” at the end of a sentence and didn’t expect everyone on the planet to giggle like 12 year olds, but they’ve done every writer since a grand disservice and ruined tagging forever.
Quotation Marks: THANK YOU JEFF, for insisting that they be used. I can’t think of anything more irritating than not using quotes. It’s one of the many things I hate about Cormac McCarthy. And he’s a Texas writer, too. Do you know how that pains me? But it does, because even Texas writers are obligated to use all forms of punctuation when telling a story. There are no exceptions.
Description—Wow, there’s lots here. Some relevant highlights:
*Specific and significant detail is the key to good description. –Yes! I need to get back to word-sketching. I used to do it all the time, and I miss it.
*Describe people, settings and things in the right progression. –I never thought about it consciously, but I do this all the time.
*When describing people’s actions, do not divorce body from mind.—Hmmm.. I’m guilty of this occasionally. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with “he looked.” I’m more disinclined to use “gaze wandered around the room” because it belongs in the same tool box with “it was a dark and stormy night.”
* Study Poetry for interesting approaches to desctription—Yes! The only creative writing class I took in college had a huge poetry component included and it really helped me. I think this should be higher up on the list. And I emphatically disagree that the compression necessary for poetry can’t improve prose writing. Poetic economy is one of my most valued tools for a number of reasons. It’s not about the reduction of words; rather, it’s about choosing the perfect one word instead of using three pretty good ones.
Style: I try not to waste time thinking about my style. It is what it is.
* Each story must be told in the style best suited for it.
*Inasmuch as a story has depth (or depth perception) it achieves this quality
*Some writers’ styles cannot multitask, or cannot lithely pivot.
*Artists and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style
I was having real problems with this discussion until I hit the “Approaches to Style” graphic by Jeremy Zerfoss. Good save. Good examples. But I still don’t think too much about style. I write for comfort and also intention.
SIDE NOTE: There is so much info crammed into this chapter, it’s kind of stacked up on itself. This has broken the flow of the chapter a couple of times, now. Granted, it’s all good, but I’m hopping around instead of reading from point to point.
Thoughts on Exposition by Kim Stanley Robinson
Another great collection of thoughts and advice—some of it at odds with what Jeff thinks. Kudoes to him for including dissenting opinions in the discussion.
The Greater and Lesser Mysteries
Voice: This one is easy. My voice is conversational. I tend to “write like I talk,” whatever the hell that means. I don’t really think I do, but that’s the most frequent comment/compliment I get about my work, so there you go.
Tone: “Tone is created not just by word choice, but also through the rhythms and lengths to the sentences, the images evoked, and the descriptions.”
After I read that, I got an epiphany for a story I’ve been struggling with. I wrote it down hurriedly and now I can follow up on it. That alone was worth the whole chapter.
Structure: “How things happen as much as what happens.” Okay.
Theme: This is another thing I try not think about, even wif I have a theme in mind for a particular story.
Form: I’m not grokking this at all right now.
“What is probably meant in this latter case is simply that all of the tenants of the story have worked so perfectly in tandem, and matched so perfectly the vision in the writer’s head, that the effect on the reader seems miraculous and cathartic.”
Um, wow. That’s a hell of a trick to pull off. There’s no way in hell I can plan for this. It never even crossed my mind before.
INSERT: Typing these notes up the next morning, I realized that I DO know what this is all about. These are the stories like “Gift of the Magi” and “Shottle Bop” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The perfectly constructed Jenga towers that look like magic tricks when you read them and in fact, they kinda sorta are.
I think of this as when the alchemy comes together just so.
The Complete Relationship Between Story Elements
I get that the elements are interdependent, but thinking of them as a living system feels—what? I don’t know. Wrong for me, I guess. I like gears and cogs and alchemy better, myself. But I understand the point being made. It’s all got to work, and just so, in order to function. See above about alchemy.
The Roles of Types of Imagination
--Creative and Technical imagination
Nice idea. Hadn’t really thought about the difference between the two, but yeah, when I’m writing, I put on one hat, and when I’m editing and proofing, I put on a different hat.
I LOVE the Life Cycle of a Story. The Living Organism point Makes TOTAL sense in regard to this graphic.
A Message About Messages by Ursula K. Le Guin
Brilliant essay. But then again, it’s LeGuin, one of the smartest writers, ever. “As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message. I speak story.”
Awesome. Amen to that.
A NOTE ABOUT THE WRITING ASSIGNMENT:
It's a very good assignment, but I didn't do it. I started researching, pulling books off of the shelves with the common denominator of "The Moon," and I started looking for paragraphs or sentences that described it. Then I looked up, and I'd lost three hours. On the other hand, I was able to rearrange some Robert E. Howard books, I read all of Stephen King's "Cycle of the Werewolf," got a great idea for a novella, and got about forty pages into Bradley Denton's excellent book, "Lunatics" and was reminded once again how good all of these authors are. And Berni Wrightson is no slouch in the art department, either. There were four more books I didn't even crack, because I knew what would happen. So, I'm begging off of this assignment because (A) my library is too big, and (B) I don't have the willpower and focus to NOT re-read all of the books with lunar descriptions in them. Note that changing the object of description wouldn't help. It would only create a new stack.