Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Counts

Hard toremember sometimes, when we write: what counts.

Robert Heinlein was the first to clue me in: a good few of his characters were writers, adventurers who'd had adventurous lives and thought nothing could be easier than writing about their real-life experiences.

They soon found that the only way to successfully write adventure was to forget what they knew.

Some of us have this problem. Some writers have the opposite problem: I call it research-itus, where you research and research until you kno w every in and out and the subject lies dead under your fingertips.

I'll be honest. Along with a lot of writers, my process is half close-my-eyes-and-remember, half close-my-eyes and-imagine.

Remembering, I'm back with the the thump-thump-THUMP of my heart as a blade flashes in the sunlight, the vague brutality (like lightning looking for a place to ground) that drew me to nerve centers, floating ribs, weak places in joint-construction. This is very hard to turn into interseting reading.

Very. Hard.

To tell the truth, (and I want to tell y'all the truth), trying to chronicle these moments, however cathartic, leads to damned boring reading. The excitement is more taking that, and imagining...

More often, I read the other guys: writers who've done so *damned* much research and just. Can't. Wait. to show it. Whether it's the average rainfall of California or the three easiest takedowns against an armed assailant, these writers really, really, *really* want you to feel the depth of their research.

Guess what, all of us:

It don't matter.

Research doesn't count. Not really. Neither does experience.

What counts?

Words on a page.

We write words. Some of us draw pictures. A few of us do both. But, as always, the main thing is the story.

Tell a story the audience can't wait to hear, and they don't give a damn about your research. Or your experience.

They just want to hear what happens next.

Don't believe me? Check out the Iliad. Homer had all the access he wanted to seasoned veterans, men who could give him any detail he wanted about spear-maintenance, overlapping-shield tactics and the friner points of battlefield injuries.

What survived the last two or three thousand years? Achilles dragging Hector's body behind a chariot. Athene stepping in with her poisoned arrow. Helen, lovely and troubled, standing at the ramparts of Troy.

Gilgamesh? Nobody gives a rat's ass about the finer points of Bronze Age warmaking, only that the big bastard set out in a small boat to battle one hell of a big serpent.

More recently: most *real* pirates plundered tar and timber, rope and rum. Compare that shabby truth to the story told in Treasure Island, and be thankful RL Stevenson's research and experience wasn't of a higher caliber. In the end, every one of us who makes a mark on paper is just like Blind Pew...

In other news, Shauna gave me a lovely award. I'll pass it along when I'm sober. Meantime, thank you very much Shauna. Glad you find a little bit you like in this blog...


Charles Gramlich said...

"what happens next." The distilled heart of story.

Angie said...

I think research does count, but what counts just as much is knowing how much of it to use (a little), how much of it to leave out (a lot) and when to outright ignore it for the sake of your story.

There's a difference between, say, streamlining the operation of a pirate ship because you know your readers don't care about every piece of hemp and canvas, and having your grizzled pirate captain give orders that'd have even casual weekend sailors laughing uproariously. Unless, of course, you wanted to show that the captain was an idiot and the ship was going to be drifting in circles.

I'm fine with changing something deliberately to make it fit the plot or the flow or the tone of my story. I'd just as soon not accidentally make a fool of myself, though, just because I didn't know any better. :/


cs harris said...

How true, how true. It is so hard to pull that telling detail out of all we know and walk away from the rest. I'm reminded of my first draft of a chase scene through Uptown New Orleans in Archangel; it went on for pages and pages and pages. The problem? I intimately knew the neighborhood I was describing (my grandmother lived on that block), and I somehow felt I had to include every blade of grass and crack in the sidewalk. It took about four ruthless edits to get it down to about a fifth its original length. And it's STILL too long.

SQT said...

I'm not gonna lie. I skip the chapters that are nothing but descriptions of whales in "Moby Dick" and move on to the good stuff. That's how I roll.

Barbara Martin said...

I have learned to add sparse description as the story goes along, just enough to describe to the reader what the area looks like without it being a 'void'.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm the odd one out here, I guess. I love minutiae. I want to know the type and cut of the gems in the earrings, the style and fabric of the dress, the cooking method and sauce for the fish course, the caliber of the steel in the sword and how it was decorated.

I read spec fic and historical fiction because I enjoy the feeling of being in another place or time, which, correct me if I'm wrong, has to come from the dialogue and the telling details.

Miladysa said...

I'm torn between the two - it's all in the way you tell 'em!

Steve Malley said...

Charles, I do believe that's where I meant to go. Not my best post I'm afraid...

Angie, a great point. While Homer didn't bore his audience with minutiae, neither could he have gotten away with howlers like thrown javelins outdistancing arrows (or whatever).

CS, my problem too. Thank heavens for those edits, eh?

SQT, I've had a lot of 'info-dumps' inflicted on me in the last month or so of reading. I've started to skim, myself.

Barbara, that's a real gift.

Shauna, I loves me a good historical, alt.history, sff, etc. too. As with so many things in writing, it's about *which* details to bring in, and which to leave out. As I said, I've just had too many info-dumps lately...

Miladysa, if I had that post to rewrite (and the temptation is strong- it's a mangled bit of dreck), the thesis would be something like, "Research and realism serve the story, not the other way around. 'What happens next' must always be first concern."

Sorry guys, I kind of blew it on this one!

Sidney said...

Cory Doctrow has a column on Locus and part of it is about not getting too bogged down in research. His point is mainly, don't stop and research, write and leave a spot for the data that needs to be researched and add it later.

Drizel said...

Well I found the more I research the more I confuse my story line and then I get so obsessed with facts that I just loose my mind(ok it was lost a while ago). Anyways I still think if you are a writer your story will come and it will be told.
Great post:)

AvDB said...

You're absolutely right about the parts where an author is keen to show how much research he/she put in; there's a visual break, where you can almost imagine the author stopping the book and stepping in with his chalkboard and pointer.

I tend to research things to death in order to delay the moment when I have to start writing. Then, when I write, hardly any of the research goes into the book. If I were a smart girl, I'd just skip the initial research and move ahead, researching what I need as I go.

ANNA-LYS said...

Most research are killed as stories by the writer him/herself. WHY?
Because they leave out the most interesting part ... the imaginative story-line, the personal journey towards the great discovery. If I don´t mistake me, Charles S. Peirce hi-lightened this as the most important part of the research "the thoughts and actions" MODUS OPERANDI ... today, it's just copy-cats, the real events are left out from the reports, articles and dissertations ... but in my case this is the biggest and most interesting parts of my scientific writing.

Keep Up a Good 2009!!

Lana Gramlich said...

Very good points, yet again. I used to write & found that if I learned too much, the passion just seemed overwhelmed by knowledge, y'know?

Sepiru Chris said...

Hello Steve,

I am arriving via Barbara Martin; checking out the other people that she bestowed award largess upon.

Interesting post; I see your thesis. I also enjoy the comments.

I will be back to read more.