Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bah! I've Got To Stop Writing Bar Stories

Now why I'm keeping this secret when most of the people reading this know exactly what's going on is a source of bafflement to me...

But there's something going on. I'll tell you that much. On March First everything changes. Okay, not everything. But there'll be something.

Cumulative evidence, both internal and external, has convinced me that I need to dump the bar series. (For those not in the loop on this one, I've written some stories set in a bar. They're weird SF, very old-fashioned in the way they work the initial concepts, and are told by barflies.) Here's why.

The main problem with them has always been integrating the setting into the story in a way that makes sense. Problem number one?

The setting doesn't need to be in the stories I've told.

When John Shirley -- he's got some readings coming up, and I'm planning on attending the one on February 28, click for further information -- read the first story in the sequence, he said that he'd have shown at least some of the real action in the story happen on-screen. I suspect diplomacy on his part.

I gave a long defense of my approach, based on the fact that the story was written specifically because I wanted to write a bar story. Which was true.

Which didn't mean that Mr. Shirley was wrong. The core of the story was right there from the first draft. All the major changes that the piece went through during its numerous revisions had to do with the packing material, with the parts of the story that were actually set in the bar.

The central and (to some degree willfully) unrecognized problem with those sections was that they didn't fucking need to be there in order to tell the story.

But I remained in denial, despite what I'd heard in my writer's group. What I'd heard from other readers.

Well, this morning I got an email from Allison Landa giving me her critique of the most recent story in the sequence. Among other things, she said...

I don’t consider the bar setting relevant and, in fact, it distracts from the meat of the story.

She also pointed out some cliches that were built into the setting. On some level this wasn't news to me but this time I found myself wondering if maybe everyone was right...

Then I got this comment from Rob Pierce regarding the Free Story I pimped yesterday.

Enjoyed it, of course, but it doesn't feel fully realized. There's a guy in a bar telling a very strange story so matter-of-factly that even when the thinking cap is revealed it doesn't seem dramatic. The whole thing for me felt like a concept, like you were saying "hey I've got this really cool idea for a story." And despite its publication, that's what I think it remains.

(For his full statement, see the comment on yesterday's post.)

Ooooooh, shit. The other other shoe just dropped.

Okay, folks, clue delivered.

The method of telling the story -- having a third person tell it to the 'voice' character, who then repeated it to the audience? Can you say insulation? One of my main concerns in my fiction is delivering something as close to a direct experience as I can get. This technique does the opposite. Fuck me.

But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have any reasons. And now that I know that the approach is broken it's pretty clear to me what's going on here.

First off, I really love bar stories. I may not be good with them but I love them. Of course, I hate drinking in bars and that was one of the things I wanted to get across -- but that's not what I'd call a major theme upon which a body of literature could be built. Farewell, Jorkens and Mr. Mulliner. Gavagan's Bar, the White Hart, farewell. I'd rather drink alone anyway.

The next one is a little tricky, but it's essentially conceptual. In all three of these stories I had a basic idea --

The whole planet is covered in invisible bugs. What if some of them were intelligent and we were committing genocide on a daily basis just by wiping counters and cleaning toilets?

Rational thought is the product of discipline, and its most refined forms are skills derived from a tradition that has been built over the course of history, something that must be taught. It's unnatural, an artifact. What if you could do something to the human brain to make it more predisposed to rational thought?

Why the hell are raccoons stockpiling concrete on the roof outside my studio? Are they trying to make the jump to tool use?

-- and in all these cases the basic idea was something I had lurking in my head for a long, long time. Years. And they hadn't gotten anywhere near turning into stories.

The bar acted like a mental Petrie dish. In each of these cases, I had the experience of running over a particular thought like this and then saying, "Hey. Let's put it in the bar."

And when I did, all I had to do was sit down and start writing and the story just came. Clever little details and hooks produced themselves without the need for elaborate planning. The pattern in the critiques that I've gotten on these stories has been tons of red ink during the sections set in the bar, then little or nothing during the actual narrative.

There's another clue for you, Oafboy.

I think the key there is that I was imagining someone telling me the story. So all I had to do was listen. And since that was the way I imagined the stories -- and they came so easily, they were fucking gifts -- that's the way I wrote them. Stories don't come to me every day so I tend to take what my imagination gives me.

Time to start developing my creative techniques, he said.

And finally, there's a far more crass reason. The damned things sell. Both finished stories have been published, one twice in hypothetically-paying markets, and both have been posted on line. The Little Things even got praise from Biology In Science Fiction. There's a motive right there.

But more than that, the spoken-word format allows me to write the stories in a much shorter form than would be possible if I were to include things like, oh, I don't know.

Character. Setting. Description. That kind of thing.

Most of my short fiction has been at a length that rides the border between a short story and a novella. Seven to nine thousand words seems to be my sweet spot. (Now that I think about it, I've read the critical claim that the novella is the perfect length for a science fiction story...)

That length is pretty much unsellable. Almost all markets are closed to work that's longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

But I've had just about everything I've written make it out into the public eye (and I still hold out hope for some of the pathetic crippled monstrosities thumping around my story trunk) and anyway. Who worries about the money when you're writing short form works? That's what novels are for.

(And the occasional collection. I figure that I'll put out a collection of my short fiction at some point in time. I've got just about enough to put up a self-published on-demand collection at Lulu. Hell, I want to do it just for the chance to design a book, now that I've done a magazine properly.)

So by taking the fast and easy route when I write these stories, I'm cheating them. If I want to build up a respectable body of work I can't be pulling that shit.

I need to just write them as well as I can and fuck a bunch of commercial motivations. If someone wants something commercial from me I'm happy to do it -- but to write commercial stuff and then hope to sell it? That's not the game I want to play. (Puts on his grease-stained cardboard crown.) I am, after all, a literary artist of the highest water. Belles-lettres, motherfucker.

So I guess I'll have to go back to the raccoon story and write it like a fucking story. At least I've got a solid notion of the events, characters, and setting of the story, of the basic narrative arc. Now to turn those into a plot.



Allison Landa said...

I'm glad to read this. And keep me in the loop here: What's coming March 1?

Zachary said...

You may not know until then! It must be kept secret! I say this because I, too, am in on this game.