Discomfort, Brevity, and the Serial

01 Feb

If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.
— John Dos Passos

So, I’m working on the next episode of Thieves’ Honor, and — though I know the story, know what’s supposed to happen next — it’s just not letting itself be written.

This is a common malady. I am averse to loading down my work with emotion, and yet those are the very things it needs. After all, as a reader, the stories that stay with me the longest, make the greatest impression, have reached out and grabbed me by the heart and soul. No amount of mere action has the same effect.

Dialogue, plot points, characters: easy. Well, easier. But action and emotion can be overdone, underdone, cheesy to the point of laughable (unless that’s one’s goal). Emotion makes readers care; action keeps their attention.

When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind. — Cicero, Roman author, orator, politician (106 BC – 43 BC)

Okay, fiction’s main goal is entertainment, not instruction, but there’s often cross-pollination between the two, and Cicero’s advice to be brief is applicable to storytelling. However, when is brevity too, well, brief?

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.
— Hart Crane, American poet (1899-1932) 

I can get to the essence of an paragraph and then strip everything else away. The words themselves, their order on the page, the structure of the paragraphs — how to lead the reader from one idea to another in a logical and interesting fashion — that’s the stuff I understand. That’s where I’m most at ease.

There is clarity, elegance, even beauty, in pared-down prose, but sometimes a writer needs to add, not subtract. Sometimes, a writer just needs to say it.

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.
— Anais Nin 

How does that idea fit into science fiction? Telling the truth can be downright uncomfortable.

However, stepping beyond comfort makes the story more interesting for readers. Makes the story more interesting for me. Pushes me. No more writing on autopilot; I have to pay attention.

Adding to the discomfort, Thieves’ Honor is my first attempt at serial fiction. In one sense, any fiction with chapters is serial fiction. However, I’m writing this with only the barest of outlines. No precise plotting. I’m learning as the readers are learning, writing as if taking a journey by lantern light, able only to see a few steps ahead on the path.

In this episode, antagonists of the main cast of characters are the focus: an upright constable and two of her men are about to break the law in a big way. There’s fear, a quest for truth, and even a hint of romance.

I guess my real dilemma is how to convey all that with the least amount of words, the most economical action, and the greatest amount of emotion.

Easy reading is damned hard writing. — Nathaniel Hawthorne(1804-1864)

Amen, brother. Amen.


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3 responses to “Discomfort, Brevity, and the Serial

  1. Johne Cook

    February 1, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Hey, K, I highly recommend the January blog posts at Amazing Stories by Chris Gerwel about writing noir and the SF and F flavors of same. I think you’ll find a lot there in common with what you’re talking about in this post.

    • Keanan

      February 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Muchas Gracias, Johne! I’ll be heading over there ASAP.


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