Saturday, February 1, 2014

Working Through WONDERBOOK, part 4

Author's Note: These are transcripts of my handwritten notes that I took while reading through this project, my self-appointed writer's workshop. 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 3: Beginnings and Endings


Confession: this is a graphics-heavy chapter. Not sure how many notes I’m going to make. We’ll see at the end.

A Charged Image—an image that has some psychological or symbolic resonance; it has a life beyond its presence as part of the setting or part of the character’s possessions.

That’s an interesting term. I’ve not heard it before. But I can think of a number of examples in my stories, so, okay.

“That’s why you must not mistake the progress of your inspiration for the actual progress of the story.” Good advice, well stated.

Beginnings are critical.

More organic metaphors, but I'm okay with this, I suppose.
The Lure of the Hook
The idea of an exciting hook is an old chestnut—but I love chestnuts. Nothing draws interest like a punch in the nose. I think this works best, though, with characters readers have a familiarity with already.

Obviously it’s different for novels than for short stories.

Elements of a Good Beginning
 A main character presented from a consistent POV.

A conflict or problem.

A hint or suggestion of a secondary conflict or problem that may form a subplot or an additional complication.

A sense of action or motion, even if the opening scene is static.

A general or specific idea of the setting.

A consistent tone and mood to the language.

*The economy and sophistication with which you provide these elements, and the style in which you present them may depend on whether you are writing a short story or a novel.*

An opening sentence can and should do more than one thing.

Questions to ask yourself
Is the main character or at least one character introduced in the very first line? If not, why, and what is emphasized in the first line in place of character?

Is the man character fully integrated with other elements: can we begin to see the character’s opinions about his or her environment andabout other characters?

Have you chosen the right viewpoint character?

Have you chosen the right approach to point of view, whether first person, third person, or (blech) second person?

Is the starting location or general setting appropriate for the story?

Is the problem or dilemma facing the main character clear to the reader to the degree required for this particular story?

Is the tone of the opening consistence and does it carry through the rest of the story?

Does the style fit the characters, setting and purpose of the story?

Does the emotional content of the words you have used to create the correct context and the correct pact with the reader to the type of story?

Does the opening support the ending?

Lots of questions that I freely admit I don’t consciously ask. I tend to brainstorm until I see a clear beginning in my head, and then go with that. Definitely something I need to work on. Admittedly, a lot of the above is stuff I do intuitively. Perhaps to my detriment.

Additional questions to consider for Genre Stories
Do we know WHERE we are?

Do we know WHEN we are?

If where and when are implied, is that enough information? Is the implication providing the right kind of information?

If you have stated where and when, have you been too obvious in your approach?

Do we know if the protagonist is human or not?

If no, do we have any clues as to how differently this protagonist  understands and processes the world from a human protag?

In conveying context, have you provided too much content up front?

Do we have a general idea from the word choice and other contextual clues as to whether we are reading SF, fantasy or something else?

Does your word choice help convey the differences between your setting and Earth Prime in a seamless fashion?

Have you included too many made-up or unusual words to try to convey your unique setting?

That’s a LOT of questions to ask. I think that many of these are intuitive.

Myster Odd presents Memorable First Lines.
Some good examples here. My favorite of the lot is:

“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.”
 –Daphme de Maurier, “Don’t Look Now.”

For me, I consider the first like to be “the hook” that pulls the reader to the second sentence.

A good opening line might offer the reader:

A sense of mystery or atmosphere
An interesting initial situation
Immediate tension and excitement
An intriguing statement
An unusual or interesting description
A point of view

When Not to Commit
Good examples using Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.
Jeff is spot on that an established writer can get away with, or is afforded more latitude, when it comes to development a story.

This leads me right to American Gods.

I wanted this to be good. It just wasn't.
The Beginning of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
I’m not doubting the veracity of anything Neil says in this essay. But this was absolutely useless and in my opinion, the first clunker of any of the included material in the book. I think the way he described events that led up to the book being written offer no useful help in the writing of a novel, unless one is Neil Gaiman, and the novel being written was American Gods. I should explain, I think.

I like Neil Gaiman. I like his work. I’ve met him several times, and on at least two occasions, we had a lovely conversation. In person, and whenever he speaks in public, he’s the very definition of charming. I mean, he’s charismatically charming. It’s like his superpower. And everyone who meets him fails their saving throw versus magic. He’s that guy. I’ve been a fan of his ever since Sandman. I went back and actually owned, for a time, Ghastly Beyond Belief. I have an original first edition of Good Omens. I’m a fan, understand me?

But I think American Gods is his most overrated book. It’s easily the worst thing he ever wrote, and that’s a shame, because it should have been the best thing he ever wrote. Since we’re talking about beginnings, let me say that the beginning is fine. It’s great. It’s got mysteries and clues and foreshadowing and all of the stuff being talking about in this chapter of Wonderbook as necessary and good and important.

But then the short stories start showing up, apropos of nothing, in the book. Shadow (a terrible, terrible name for a character) is running around with Odin, meeting and talking to all of the old gods (and meeting the new gods who are trying to take over), and they all keep telling him, “there’s a war coming, you’d better pick a side.” Then every three or four chapters, some brilliant little short story drops in to interrupt the flow of the narrative—my favorite one being about the Djinn who is driving the taxi—which is, in fact, its bottle. Genius. The KIND of thing Gaiman is known for.

Then we go back to Shadow (did I mention how much I hate that name? It’s like when geek girls tell everyone to call them “cat” because they’re just like a cat, don’tcha get it?) and Odin, driving across America, meeting people who are old, forgotten gods...and then, to paraphrase the Police song, Synchronicity II...Many miles away, something pushes a car out on the ice, where it sinks to the bottom of a dark Minnesotan Lake...

Okay, three narratives going on, right? What’s happening with the car on the ice, this massive build-up to American Raganarok, and these little gems of short stories that seem to have fuck-all to do with the other two stories. Surely this’ll all come together, right?

Well, no, not exactly. The short stories dry up about half-way through. The big war that’s supposed to happen, that he says throughout the whole novel is going to happen, finally arrives and guess what? It doesn’t happen. Shadow (god, that name!) gives this chastising speech to all of them that starts out with the inane observation that “America is lousy soil for gods.” Excuse me? It is? Really? Is that how come you and Odin have spent the last three hundred pages of the book driving all around and visiting them? In what way exactly is that lousy? I don’t understand. But apparently, all of the other gods do, because they leave without fighting! Yep. Powerful words, from a guy named Shadow.

So, that leaves the Lakeside story. And finally, the two narratives collide, and it’s pretty cool. Granted, it’s not epic Gotterdammerung-level good, but at least finally the two plotlines have converged and provide us with an ending.

And then Gaiman went and wrote another ending.

And then he went and wrote another ending.

The book is a mess. And reading the essay, and kind of reading between the lines, I can see why this was so. I don’t think Neil had a big high concept in mind when he started writing on the book. I think he had a contract to fill. And considering that the publisher took his working title and ran with it, I question if American Gods was the best name for the book. It’s a great name, don’t get me wrong. And the ideas that he came up with—Media, Internet, and so forth—are very cool and interesting as creative counterpoints to his Endless.

But that’s what the WHOLE book should have been about. And it wasn’t, not really. Or, optionally, he could have filled an entire book with short stories about “the American Gods” like the cab-driving Djinn. That would have been great. What we got instead was a mishmash of stuff, half-finished, with some brilliant ideas and the desperate need for an editor who wasn’t afraid to ruffle the fur on the 800-lb gorilla to make that a readable book—or two.

I know that I’m in the minority on this. I know that everyone loved American Gods from the word go. I think he’s written much better books, both before and since, and I’ll continue to read him. He will continue to be charming, to me and everyone else, but I’m not so enamored of him that I’ll forgive a book that, if someone who was not Neil Gaiman had turned in, would have undergone a severe editorial round or two of corrections and a partial rewrite, provided it even made it past the assistant editor.

So, while I value what Gaiman wrote about the beginning, and searching for it, I think it’s a terrible mistake to do all of that searching while under a contractual deadline.

Bad Beginnings
Whoops. Guilty as Charged. I know I’ve done this before. But actually, pointing this out gives me a great idea for a better beginning to the book I’m starting now. Most excellent.

This may be my favorite chapter yet in Wonderbook.

Novel approaches: Finch
This is a lengthy and heavily illustrated section where Jeff deconstructs his own book, Finch, and discussing in great detail what approaches he considered and rejected as beginnings, and also why.

This is very useful stuff. This new book I’m working on has been a thorn in my side for years. I’ve started it twice, and it’s defeated me twice. It’s looking like I’m going to start working it over whilst still reading Wonderbook. It will be interesting to see how these notes and all of this reading reshape my process. I’m actually open to it. I need a new angle on this book.

Middles
Looking at the graphic for The Middles—and it’s pretty damn accurate, at that—reminds me of exactly why I like to use outlines for novels. It simplifies the path and created order out of swirling chaos for me. Having a path to follow through that mess makes it easier for me to hop off it and go exploring if I need to.


The Beginning of Endings
I would say that 90% of the time, I know my ending before I start writing. Only in a couple of instances have I done otherwise. And both times, I’m glad I did. I needed the rest of the story to tell me what the ending would be.

I think there’s weight in the elements of the story that suggest an ending naturally, on its own.

Myster Odd presents Final Lines:
Hmm. Nothing in these examples really speaks to me. Except for the Jerome Bixby story, of course. Of course, one of the best final lines ever, from Matheson’s I Am Legend, kinda gives the whole story away if you know it in advance. It’s tough to write about those lines, isn’t it? It’s cheating the reader.

The End of Endings
I like the idea of cutting your last paragraph off to see if you really need it.


Writing Challenge
 Given my eagerness to get on with it, I wrote three first lines based on an illustration provided within the book. I tried to conceptualize three different openings with tone, varying levels of distance, and immediacy. Also, I tried to impart some information about the world, especially in the first one. 

1. When the first Kraken attack happened, I was only ten years old.

2. Ensign Hicks stared, uncomprehending, as the tree-trunk sized tentacle arced up out of the sea as if it grew unchecked from some ancient garden below the water.

3. “Sir, you’d better have a look at this.” The first mate handed the binoculars to the captain and held his breath.

Going back to them after reading the chapter, the only thing I would do differently is I would keep brainstorming openings until I got something that was genius. I tend to give up early on things like this in order to get to the good stuff. Not all the time, but sometimes. Interesting exercise. Reading about Jeff working through the opening for Finch was the best part of this chapter. 
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