DVD release of the 1961 cartoon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Gods help us, it’s NaNoWriMo again.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the folks who came up with this thing have a pretty keen idea — it certainly helps Shan; her personality says she works best if she has neat little progress graphs and deadlines, word count goals, and all those other things that I’m too lazy to give a damn about. In short, it ain’t for me.
Oh, but the forums. The forums are amusing, and terrifying. Shannon certainly finds more than a few ways to give me nightmares; things like Write or Die.
It amazes me, first off, how many people get the idea: I’m going to write a novel! Who clearly are not literate. I make typos, I know I do; I’m dyslexic and I didn’t get a very sound English education, but I try. And hell, I’m Human (or humanoid anyway), we all make mistakes. Mistakes are not some of these forum posts, excerpts, and so forth. I’m not sure some of these posters and participants aren’t agents of Lord Cthulhu working to wear down the sanity of those reading. Too, the questions, dear gods the questions. They will quote perfectly good, clear, proper English bits from the FAQ, or other parts of the site, then ask questions that show that Reading Comprehension is not a skill the poster possesses. It’s horrifying.
But I’m not going to post about that. I am, however, going to take a few moments to point and laugh …
[Pointing and laughing]
There, I feel better. I’m not trying to be cruel, I’m just … if you can’t remember not to eat the paint, you probably shouldn’t be a painter; if you can’t hit a nail more often then your thumb, you shouldn’t be a carpenter; if you couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, don’t be a musician. It’s the same with writing: If you can’t, don’t.
No, I’m more interested in wondering what is wrong with our society that we feel the need to codify art as a science. To ask questions about technique, is one thing: Does it work better to put the final punctuation inside, or outside the quotes (this is a grammar “rule” that no two manuals, let alone dialetcs of English, can agree on)? To discuss matters of pacing, and the like. Sure, of course.
No, I’m talking about things like “Should my characters use the bathroom?” ”Should my characters shower?” ”How long should I make a chapter?” ”Should the villain be a woman?” ”Do I have enough black characters?” ”Do I need a warning that this contains nuts, if I show someone eating a Snickers bar?” (Okay, I made that last one up, but some of them are pretty ridiculous).
On the surface, the ones not about the Snickers bar seem reasonable enough, until you think about it, or until you discover the context. The one about black characters, for example, could just be intending to ensure that the demographic of the setting is right, so you don’t pull a … oh, bugger, some new popular author who’s getting a lot of shit, and deserved I should think, for “whitewashing” a predominately black area of some big city, Chicago or something. Harry Dresden? That sounds wrong, but I don’t know what to throw at Google to find out, so fuck it. But no, it’s nothing so useful. They just want to make sure they have a sufficiently racially diverse cast.
Thing is, that doesn’t work. I went to school in an area that was under a court order to ensure a certain racial diversity in the schools — made the zoning look like a gorram tie-dye, let me tell ya. Doesn’t happen though. Some schools are simply going to be whiter, blacker, latiner, or greener than others; demographics are a bitch.
Chapter length? Trust me, I’ve looked, I can’t find a dictionary of the English language, from Webster to Oxford which defines the noun chapter with a fixed page or word count, nor a range.
Gender of the villain? Again, maybe you’re getting ready to reveal the mysterious villain, and all this time the identity was ambiguous — even to you (hey, that’d be a great way to write a mystery, eh? Seat of the pants thriller! That’d be full of surprise twists for damned sure) — and you’re trying to decide if it might be fun to pull a Dick Tracy (for those too forgetful, or young to know, Dick Tracy was an old comic character who had a movie in the 90s with Warren Beatty and Madonna, [spoiler alert] Madonna’s character turns out to be the faceless “man” who’s a semi-villain). No, they’re worried about offending people.
Oh, fun, the social justice and political correctness crowd. Boy do they ask some odd questions. They’re writing stories that strive for a certain realism, grit, darkness, etc. Or, worse, historical novels. Regardless, they’re not trying to write some utopian thing, but they’re worried about putting too few blacks in the Confederate gentry? About writing a Strong Female character in Victorian London?? It does work, to put a black antebellum gentleman; believe it or not, they existed — they also owned slaves, yes black ones. And, yes, some quite strong and independent women have existed throughout history — there’s a reason that, prior to the Women’s Lib movement, they were names of legend and gossip, news and tall tales — names we still remember today (Anne Bonny, anyone?)
Some cultural sensitivity is important. If a Lakota warrior is going to feature prominently in your narrative, and you’re not writing a campy, old fashioned, dime western — learn something about the Lakota, and try to portray this man in his proper glory. On the flip side, if you’re writing a modern Wild Bill adventure, put -um on the end of every third verb or noun (suddenly can’t remember which), “How” means “hello”, and scalp some fuckers. It’s fine, really. Now, telling a modern Wild Bill with the Indians accurately portrayed, admittedly, could be a really fun twist of the tropes — but, hey, that’s up to you.
And that’s always true. WHAT STORY ARE YOU TELLING?! What is your vision? What is your art? It’s your story, after all.
A fact of life, no matter if you write, film, paint, fuck, juggle geese, eat fire, shit checkers, race cars, or bake cakes — you will never please everyone. You won’t. Someone will bitch. Maybe it’s Human nature, maybe it’s a bizarre disease of modern Western Society — but whatever the cause, some prick is going to bitch. The trick is to appear natural.
Ah, I said “appear” not “be”. Fun thing language, things aren’t always what we expect, or mean exactly what it seems on the surface. Being natural would mean being always careful about your demographics, historical mores and vernacular, etc. Appearing natural is when you make the reader believe, for just a brief moment, that John Carter mysteriously teleported to the great red orb of Barsoom, and thereupon live giant green, four-armed warriors and the egg-laying noble copper-skinnedpeople of Helium. Seem a bit of an extreme example? Thing is, you just need to make it real for the moment — for just long enough to make the reader believe that a hare and a tortoise will race, and that the tortoise will win — and it isn’t enough to make an ordinary, plodding tortoise outrun a hare, you must explain how. Sometimes your characters will do daft things, because for the duration of the story they’re real, and real people make mistakes and do daft things.
What makes me an expert? I read. I read what those who have told stories that entrance millions have said about writing; I’ve read their books, too. I think, I ponder, I write, and I read. Observation of the universe is the only true education in any matter — except maybe history, that tends to take some digging, but let’s not get pedantic. Anyone who reads, not just stares at pages of text, any idiot who’s been taught the alphabet and a little bit of phonics can do that – reading requires taking it in, remembering the story, feeling and experiencing it, understanding it. Just as any idiot can stare at moving pictures on a screen, if nothing is going on behind the eyes, they are not watching it, they’re only staring at it.
Back to my point, though: art is not science, and science is not often very artistic. The questions, amusing and terrifying alike, they show people approaching the art of writing as though it were the science of it. As though there is a quantifiable, qualitative, definitive Truth of what makes a great story, of How One Constructs A Narrative. There’s not. It’s art — a mix of talent, luck, imagination, inspiration, and some technical know how (brush techniques, a good rhyming vocabulary or dictionary, a proper understanding of how to use your language of choice, how to hold a chisel, etc.).
Science is, if you put sodium and chlorine together in a 1:1 ratio, you get NaCl (aka, table salt) — always happens, funny thing that, you can’t put them together and get gold or sugar or bacon, you will always get salt; it’s a Rule, it’s how the universe is put together, and anyone who is upset about it can take up with the gods, and anyone who doesn’t want to believe it is probably delusional or insane. Art is when people discuss it, argue over it, and when doing the same thing twice gets different results. Mixing a hobbit, thirteen dwarves, and a wizard will not always give you The Hobbit. Yoko Ono’s art is brilliant or insanity depending who you ask; if it were science it would always and forever be one or the other, just as NaCl is salt no matter who you ask (you may have to translate it out of German, Chinese, Swahili, Klingon, or Galfarran, but it’s salt). Love or hate Bach, adore or deplore Shakespeare, brilliance or lunacy, garbage or masterpieces, still, they are art.
A story is what you make it, it’s what you tell, the tapestry of another reality that you weave. It doesn’t matter if you take a true story, change a few names — you’re still weaving a fiction, unless you have an accurate account of every word spoken, you’ve at least had to improvise your dialogue. Weave your story, make people who they are or what they must be for the story to be what it must be and what it is. You’ll piss someone off no matter what you do, so just make sure you are not pissed off. Write for yourself, you’re the only one you can guarantee will enjoy it; if you don’t enjoy it, why write it? Make art that you want to see or hear, and if you choose to share it — there’re some seven billion souls upon this Earth, and untold trillions among the stars (this universe is too big, simple probability says we’re not alone), believe me someone will like it too. Just don’t go into art for wealth. If you want money do “art” for hire. If you really are creative, your art will shine through the boundaries and parameters, otherwise you’re someone with some technical skill following a formula — an accountant working with language, paint, or notes instead of numbers.