Waiter, there is a kishotenketsu in my soup

(I’ve been meaning to write this one for a few weeks, but, real life and all….)

So….

My friend and sometimes-foil Leslie made this post over on her blog Skull Honey, regarding an eastern writing style known as Kishotenketsu.  The basic premise of Kishotenketsu is “plot without conflict.”  Leslie links to this article, titled, “The significance of plot without conflict.”  The author of this article goes in depth explaining Kishotenketsu and expounds on the idea of conflict-less plot, moving away from Western norms, and on why it is a great art form.

Except it’s not.

Yeah, I know, subjectivity in art.  Hear me out.

I read very carefully through the examples provided in the article.  Do you know what those things struck me as?  Not plots.  Vignettes.  What is a vignette?   When I bang the word into Google, it tells me:

“A brief evocative description, account, or episode.”

Exactly.  Vignettes are used to set up the true plot, not the plot itself.

Look, I get there is more than one way to skin the storytelling-cat, and I understand (from readings on the subject) that some authors are tired of the three-act plot structure (set-up, conflict, resolution).  But one thing seems to get lost in these descriptions of Kishotenketsu and that is character growth.

To me, the entire point of storytelling is not about plot.  Plots are a dime a dozen and most are not memorable.  What do we remember?  Characters.  The things that stick with me are memorable characters.  Kind of a given of telling a story is the idea that the character is different – either growing or contracting – at the end than they are at the beginning.  And how do they experience that change?  I don’t think walking through a series of vignettes are going to do it.  The four-panel cartoon in the article shows one character getting a soda from a vending machine and handing to another.  That’s … nothing.

Growth is scary.  Change is difficult.  And very little of either come without some form of conflict.  People that change who and what they never do so without some friction, be in internally or externally.

(Muse:  Maybe the character in the above comic strip grew by accepting the soda.  I mean, they’re different, they now have a soda.)

Oh shut up.  Substantive change.  Meaningful change.  You know what I meant.

So while I can see the idea behind Kishotenketsu, I don’t think it is the subtle masterpiece material the article linked above makes it out to be.  If authors wish to tell vignettes, that’s fine.  I just disagree that it’s a preferred or superior form of plot.

(Muse:  You sure someone didn’t pee in your Cheerios today?)

Well, let’s just say I found the tone of the article smug and self-congratulatory.  In fact, most of the articles I read on Kishotenketsu could best be summed up as, “Western culture, boo, Eastern culture, zen!”  The author of the article I linked used the some derivative of the term “insular Western culture” at least twice and the entire thing had the feel of a snotty philosophy professor deigning to take time from his busy day to lecture the masses with his superior knowledge.  So yeah, I was predisposed to think the whole thing was manure.  Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Postmodernism always has been enamored with its own anus.

Just for the record, I found a more balanced and nuanced article on Kishotenketsu here.  In the comments to that article, the author even said:

“…it is NOT some magical Asian narrative structure that is naturally better than regular narrative structures. It’s simply a different way of organizing ideas — some stories will be more suited to this structure while others will not.”

That, I can live with.

 

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Rules are Made to be ….

So….

I mentioned via Tweet yesterday that I have been networking with some local authors.  I like meeting other folks and I hope it will lead to some chances for peer review, honest (i.e., brutal) critiques, and exposure to other writing styles.

As part of that today, I got shown this blog post titled, “43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately,” by YA writer Diana Urban (front page for her blog is here).  This was also in context of some other developing and newbie authors (of which, I still consider myself to be both) discussing some general rules of writing.  You know, the norm:  minimize adverb use, showing instead of telling, kill off extraneous dialogue tags, et cetera.

During this discussion, one other person in the group turned me aside and said, “What’s with all the rules?”

“Well,” I said, “they really aren’t rules.  More guidelines.”

The person beamed.  “Well, then I can break them, right?  Rules are made to be broken.”

I spent a few minutes trying to explain to that person that while there are no such things as hard and fast rules in the writing industry (other than Yog’s Law), that the guidelines exist for a reason – that is, they reflect the mores of the publishing world, as driven by what they are able to sell, which is driven by what the readership wants to see.

The person was nonplussed.  I said, “Look, it is your writing.  You write exactly what you want to write and nobody will bat an eye.  But if the idea is to be published – and read –  sticking with the guidelines gives you a much better shot at getting there.”

Everyone loves the idea of being a maverick.  Everyone wants to do things their own way and ride the wave of success that comes from being revered for not following the crowd.  But for every one of those success stories, there is a pile of a thousand broken dreams that didn’t work out.

Writing rules are not made to be broken.  They are made to be stretched, at best, and are best done by experienced writers who have an idea of what to do.  I mean, if you are taking a beginning class in juggling rattlesnakes, are you going to go out there without your safety gear just ’cause the instructor did it once?  Never mind that she only did it once and was paying utmost attention to what she was doing.  Hell no, you aren’t.

If you are a starting writer and take the attitude, “I am going to use all the adverbs I want and everyone will love it,” … well, you are just asking to get bitten.

And for the record, I think the list linked above is pretty good and spot on.  I am a habitual abuser of several of those words, though I was relieved to see it wasn’t many.  Sure, there comes a time when any word on that list would be appropriate or even desirable.

It is a matter of juggling snakes long enough to figure out just when that time is nigh.

Writers are a**holes

Well, they really are.

So….  Recently, a married couple I know started having some trouble, resulting in a separation, maybe a divorce.  I, and some others in our circle, talked to them, trying to keep spirits up and thoughts focused on resolving issues, not slinging blame.  You know, just doing the friend thing.  But int he midst of this, I had the thought:  hey, there is a story in here.  And that’s followed by that muse shouting in my head, that this wasn’t the time or place to think of story ideas.

(Muse:  Well, it wasn’t!)

Maybe not.  But writers are, well, assholes that way.

Think about this:  as writers, what is our goal in telling stories?  What are we aiming for?  We want to draw the reader in, engage them, grab them by the lapels, stun them, enrage them, devastate them, elate them, get them on walrus-back for the ride of their lives.  We tap into those primal human emotions.  So it makes sense that events that involve emotional trauma, emotional orgasm, or both, are good nucleus for stories.

(Muse:  But if I were to play Satan’s lawyer, I would make the point that you are using real people’s real pain to entertain your reader base.  Hence, assholes.)

And it doesn’t stop there.  Writers are going to piss people off – and I am not talking about bad writing or stuff like George R. R. Martin’s recent announcement that he was nowhere close to finishing Winds of Winter.  No, I am talking about writing about events or addressing things that the average reader may not want to deal with.  Case in point:  I rarely come across a reader who complains about mass violent death of human or humanoid characters whose sole reason for existence is to be killed by the named characters  (TvTropes.org refers to these as “mooks“).  In spec-fiction, it is pretty standard for hordes of enemies to die horrible, gruesome deaths and no one comments.  (It’s also interesting that people even more rarely comment when those killed are all men and not women, but that’s another blog post)  However, I know numerous readers who are disgusted or horrified by a descriptive killing of an animal, especially a pet-type of animal.  Even if that animal isn’t attached to a character or given any story significance.  It is seriously off-putting to many readers.

So who has two thumbs and thought about adding such a scene to a recent story, just because?  This guy!

I’m not saying we should go out of our way to write things that are based off people’s misfortunes or are designed just to make people uncomfortable.  Wait.  Actually, I am saying exactly that.

Unless you are writing comedy, telling a worthwhile story is gonna involve rubbing raw at least one emotion.  (Okay, I guess erotica might involve rubbing other things raw but still, the best erotica I’ve read invokes some conflict too.)  And no writer should shy away from writing something because it might be upsetting.  I think we should lean into it, embrace it, and own it.  We’re not in this business to mollycoddle people.

After all, as far as I am concerned, the best praise someone might heap on me would be, “Yeah, he’s a dick for writing the stuff he writes, but I can’t put it down.”

Whether my friends’ marriage makes it or not, I have the germ of a fantasy story from it.  Am I an asshole for using it?  Maybe.  But I gotta be me.

 

Tides of Christmas

So….

Once again, life conspired to get in my way.  Well, sort of.  In the real world, I entered into a little venture to cut my own firewood.  After a few days of ascending to 11,000 feet (or about 3350 meters) to cut down fire-charred fir trees for wood, I have a hefty appreciation of what our ancestors must have gone through.  And they didn’t have chainsaws or trailers to haul it in.

And then there was that NaNoWriMo thing.  I did it, successfully, which makes me three for three in NaNoWriMo attempts.  Rather than start something new, I tacked 51K words onto Princess of the North.

(Muse:  Yeah good of you to not start something *else* new and leave it unfinished.)

Quiet, you.  That puts me closer to my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year.

That rolls us right into the holiday season (for us Western-civ types).  I personally love Thanksgiving; what can be wrong with a holiday where the whole point is to enjoy family and eat yourself into a food coma?  I am less keen on Christmas.  Take your pick:  over-commercialized, pressure of buying stuff, hassle of decorating, I think the Grinch was the victim of brainwashing in his story, etc.

But it does bring up an important subject to consider in our writing and that is of holidays.  I think they are pretty universal in human culture and civilization – if not for the same reasons across culture, then by presence.  Longest days of summer, first day of winter, anniversary of an important event….  These are all big events for a culture and as such, should be celebrated.

I see a lot of proxy holidays in spec fiction, such as birthdays being referred to as “Life Days,” or “Day of Birth” celebrations.  I would like to see some more examples of non-Earth equivalent holidays in writing or to have them celebrated in such a way that we don’t expect.  Perhaps on a given world, on the character’s birthday, they perform small acts of kindness or give gifts to all the important people in their life, rather than vice versa.  Perhaps on that world, the character shows their appreciation and thanks on the anniversary of their birth rather than being showered in presents.

Perhaps on the anniversary of the ending of a grueling war, the citizens all stay home and make whoopie, to celebrate the surge of birthing that occurred after the war.  Or maybe in celebration of a monarch assuming the throne, that monarch rides through the streets handing out coins and presides over games as a way to thank his citizens for upholding his/her rulership.  Or on the first day of summer just as the sun descends over a far mountain peak, the locals all go into the field together with onions tied on their belts and sing off-key until their deity descends and grants them a good harvest.

The side-effect of having a different set of holidays for your milieu – and I know I beat this drum a lot – is adding a touch of unique flavor to the background of your world.  Among spec fiction, fantasy is especially about escape.  So why not actually escape to a world we don’t know?  Of course, being who I am, I read the examples I laid out above and my brain starts plotting all the bad things that could befall my characters during those events.  But I digress.

Endless possibilities here and some that could be more entertaining than the traditional birthday/yule/new-year’s stand-ins I see so often.  I know, I am as guilty as anyone but here’s to being more aware for my own part.

The Laws of Story Ideas … or Something….

So….

For the last few weeks, I have, one day a week, sat on a jury.  A Grand Jury.  Without getting too deep into the legal aspects of it, the basic function of a grand jury (in this jurisdiction, anyway) is to review the evidence collected by law enforcement and the district attorneys and, as a panel of citizens, decide if the case goes forward to trial.  If it we agree, the DAs can indict the accused and take it to trial.  If not, they either have to restructure their case or drop it.

(I am sure a lawyer might read that and say I left stuff out.  Well, shut up.  I was close enough.)

I’ve heard people say that anyone who likes sausage and respects the law should never watch either of them being made.  While it is true that I have seen a fair amount of pro forma legal maneuvering, it has been an interesting insight into how the system works, from the inside.  I also got to sit next to a cute court reporter, too.

(Muse:  The point, Sir.  Get to the point.)

Oh yeah.  It was interesting seeing the cases come in front of us.  Each one had a story to be told.  Sometimes the tales were simply humorous.  Sometimes they were grim.  I sat there and listened and a welter of ideas ran through my head, again and again until I thought my mind might burst.

That’s the point:  there is no shortage of ideas out there, no end to the possibilities and stories that can be told.  I think we humans are hardwired to listen to stories, whether reading it from a book, watching it on a television, or hearing it recited over a campfire – and there is no end to stories to be told.

(Muse:  Uhm, the point?)

The point is:  smack me if I ever say I have nothing to write about.

(Muse:  What about smacking you when you don’t get off your fat lazy ass to do some work?)

Different problem altogether.

Anyway, I tapped a few of those ideas into my phone and transcribed to my story notebook.  No shortage of ideas in this world.  Not ever.

Ugh, no bueno….

Ever have that feeling where no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get out of your own way?

(Muse: As helpless as a newborn kitten without being as cute?)

Yeah, that.  That describes my writing mojo for the last month.  Well, most of my various mojos, it seems.  It’s been one of those periods of self-doubt, followed by self-reflection, and a pledge to action.  I think I am stuck between steps one and two.  No choice but to gut through it.

I did a little this week; I managed to get a short story finished and two other submitted.  Journey of a thousand miles, and all that.

(Muse:  And how’s that next book coming?)

Shut up.

Is it Safe to Come Out?

This article over at Tor on Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories Trigger Warning asks a really excellent question.  The article reviews some of the stories and talks about Gaiman’s works but for me, the payoff comes at the very end, from a quote from Gaiman:

‘We build stories in our heads’, writes Gaiman. ‘We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

So simple yet so profound.  Are works of fiction safe – and should they be? I am going to take the side of “no,” works of fiction are not obligated to be safe places for the reader.  At the same time, the author is under no obligation to challenge the reader.  But wait, how can that dichotomy be?  Well, let me try to explain.

In my experience, the best lessons in life come not from the classroom or the laboratory, but from the world.  Someone can be told about love, terror, despair, joy, and triumph.  Someone can have their assertions and biases challenged in an academic setting.  Someone can watch a slideshow the best way to drive a car.  None of those are as effective as actually driving.  Or interacting with someone that knocks their preconceived notions off a pedestal.  Or loving, fearing, despairing, being overjoyed, or winning over an obstacle. And I think that is what successful stories do.  They draw the reader inside and tap into those deep emotions seated in the back of our lizard brains.  We experience the wins and losses of the protagonist.  We anguish alongside them at their heartbreaks, and feel that delightful schadenfreude at their revenges.

But here’s the thing:  change is hard.  Change is scary.  We’re creatures of habit.  We resist change.  At some level, if we knew before reading a book or watching a movie that we’d experience such intense emotions, on some level we shy away.  It’s a danger to our states of mind and we do move away from danger.  But fiction should be allowed to challenge us, to make us look inward, make us reflect and feel.  After all, it is only through change that we grow.

Then one might ask the question, “Should fiction be obligated to challenge the reader?  Should fiction always be an unsafe place?”  Well, no.  That is entirely in the hands of the author.  For all the intensity and haunting imagery felt by the reader, it is felt by the writer first.  A quote about peering into the abyss seems appropriate here.  I’ve written some pretty dark and disturbing stuff, to the point where even good friends and family members have asked, “What is wrong with you?”  (Good question, guys.)  So, if on the chance I want to write something cliched and traditional, where not only will I not make the reader unsafe, I will not make it unsafe for myself, why can I not do that?  Can I tell a story where there is no great moral imperative or raging torrent of emotional energy?  Yes, it might make the story a little – for lack of a better word – boring.  Maybe.  But is that my right as the author? I like to read stories that challenge my assumptions, as long as I don’t feel lectured.  I also like reading something predictable and safe.  And I should be able to.  It’s comfort food for the mind and sometimes, you just have to do something kind for yourself.  Otherwise, why do anything?

So anyway, rambling thoughts for early on a Wednesday morning.  As always, comments, dissenting thoughts, and insults are always welcome.