Writer’s Journey: True Characterization...

Compared to any other form of writing, the novel is the most psychological, followed closely by the short story.  A short story may not have as much time for psychological delving, and by its shorter word count, becomes limited in introspection, but the greatest function of both narratives is to delve the inner soul or consciousness of its characters as much as possible. E.M. Forster said that a “novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject-matter.”  By sensitivity, it’s the empathy of the author in question.  A writer must be keen enough to pick up the reflection of the world around them, even if they are writing about a story that took place in another time or on another world.  Character is that reflection; character brings any subject matter to life.  To find character, one must treat the novel as a psychological journey. The word psychological may be off-putting to several people but it’s the best modern word for the subjective narrative experience.  There are novels that are less psychological and focus almost entirely upon pure story-telling, but they are usually classified as adventure novels, or exist in a category of some field like science-fiction where the play of words is focused upon technology and world-building for a good reason.  Isaac Asimov is a good example of this.  And we only need to look at Robinson Crusoe for a classic example of an adventure tale. But the psychology found in novels is not to be equated with modern concepts of weekly therapy sessions, so-called happy pills, or even how the writer feels about his or her mother.  It’s more subjective in its analysis and was traditionally known as building character.  It becomes social psychology when readers pick up...

Writer’s Journey: Ordinary Masks...

The act of writing fiction is a psychological exploration.  Unlike the stage play or film script, a novel or short story derives its form from the ability of the reader to crawl into a character’s state of mind, their point of view, understand the motivations, and hear the internal narration that is happening there.  In E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he illustrates this point well with an anecdote of Queen Victoria which could go either way; biography or fiction.  In fiction we know Queen Victoria is not amused; in biography we are told. As a person matures, they develop somewhat artificial personalities or masks while confronting unpleasant aspects of the world. These personalities are social constructs that allow a person to become a bank clerk or a personal assistant; to become mothers and fathers or pet-owners; and later for some people even to write fiction.  Even an author has a social mask. Because of this, a writer must learn how much of any personality is truly artificial, and must, in the discovery of this fact, play with the material that these artificial constructs create in every day life. As children, we related directly to life, but we did so mostly without any conscious attention to what we were doing. We had formed no adult personality at that time and our experience was direct. The aphorism posed by Pablo Picasso can be instructive here: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso probably wasn’t advocating regression into irresponsibility and graham crackers by saying this. Instead he was insisting that the creative adult must combine spontaneity with wisdom, and to once again take life as it comes, moment by moment, the way that we once...

Writer’s Journey: Truth Bears Repeating...

“What is important is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.” – Gene Wolfe, Introduction to The Sandman: Fables and Reflections In this quote we see another way of phrasing the role of fiction in the world. Humanity has a short memory but by the seventeenth century, it was the advent of the printing press which was responsible for much the same glut of material published as we now see on the World Wide Web. Possibly less in volume, but with the same difficulties as the current literary crowd has observed today. Quality control, mainly. In those days novel reading was a scandal, and novels were seen much as soap operas are seen today. Most works of fiction were published anonymously, or by unsupported authors without any gatekeepers. (Does this sound like the net today?) There need be no judgment call on this. It’s an inevitable process of creation and there are days when a dime-store novel is satisfying for its own merits. There are days when you need to find an obscure reference or opinion on something online and it’s there. The point in bringing this relevant period of history up and comparing it to the self-publishing renaissance of today is that once before we learned that the power of story was in the lasting truth of its vision. Gene Wolfe...

Writer’s Journey: Aspire...

Sometimes a writer has something to say, but won’t know what that is. It lies buried deep beneath the surface in the unconscious and it may take a story to trigger it. If someone asks a writer what he’s going to say with a piece of work, the writer might feel pressured for a grand answer before his unconscious even knows what words to choose to express it. It can be difficult to express any theme or core of the material before actually writing. For some writers it is impossible to get there except through the characters and plot which unfolds a page at a time. A writer may feel a strong impulse to write about an angry young lord who was stripped of his title and inheritance. If asked why she’s compelled to write about this particular character, there may be no rational answer; just a compulsion to explore this archetype and to bring it to life through certain details and encounters. By doing so, the writer will find more than a story. At some point the character she has chosen may come upon a situation where he finds himself about to enact a deed that will send another character into some misfortune. That moment is part of the writer’s grand design, or theme, and it could only have appeared by following the character of the story step by step. In this way the writer has something that she wishes to say, but she may have no idea just what that will be until that moment arrives in the plot line. And then it will rapidly unfold perhaps as a surprise but always with some underlying feeling by the writer that it had somehow been there all along, waiting for the right moment...

Writers Journey: Begin...

Before I began, the page was a blank space. In the Japanese language, the radicals that create the full kanji pictograph for the word ‘line’ are a thread, over white or blank water. That is probably because even in ancient times, people saw the blank page as a vast sea over which one small thread seemed barely visible; thus they probably felt as daunted as we do. Usually a writer is compelled to begin when she has something to say. That is different from having an idea. Behind every generated idea there must also be something worth saying. Some of the most memorable journeys were made by authors who were wrestling with some problem they wanted to understand, or some point of view that they felt as a cry to be generally understood. This compulsion is what can propel a writer over the ‘white or blank water’ and make the first few marks on a pristine page. This applies to fiction and nonfiction equally. It’s a mistake to feel that just because we write fiction we are exempt from saying something important in the subtext of our words. A setting and a character is not enough. A writer can spend years building a world from scratch, or researching a setting and characters. But until that compulsion to say something arises, there will only be note-taking and contemplation. Sometimes it’s simply the need to be understood that triggers the writing flow. Sometimes it’s a desire to impart a certain world view or ethic. Very often, a writer begins a piece because they have someone in mind to speak to, even if the narration may never show it. A mother writes a story for her child’s bedtime. A young lover writes a poem or short story...