17 November 2015

Notes on Writing

Between 2 September and 5 November of this year, I filled a small stenographer's pad with notes on my present circumstances and activities.  One of the recurring subjects during this period was the structure of fictions and the process of composing them.  I have collected these short notes and present them as a set of fragments below.  Rereading them, I found them interesting and enjoyable, so perhaps some readers will as well.

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Give your character desire up front.  The motivation of the character motivates the reader.  But the first revealed desire oughtn't be the important one.

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Le CarrĂ© gives Smiley an obstacle—Martindale—and some problems—Ann & Lacan.  Then he introduces the mystery.  But by then Smiley has already been well-characterized.  We're comfortable with him, so the mystery can be more interesting and spacious.  [Note: It's not simply that the character's first revealed desire should be distinct from the driving motive or question behind the plot, but that the character's first navigated difficulty ought to be superseded by the main difficulty with which the novel is concerned.  First, a vignette which illustrates the character; then afterwards a foray into the real problem.]

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Start not so much with a motive as with an irritation.

The nice thing about irritations is that they characterize more than the average goal, and with less effort. [Note: less effort on the reader's part.] We needn't ask so much about the context of an irritant, because the context [of the irritant] is less important for understanding why it annoys [than the context of the character being annoyed, which we care more about anyway].

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[Harry Potter] begins with the comic characterization of the Dursleys and then adds the tantalizing introduction of Dumbledore and Harry.  Then we get the hyperbolic childhood of Harry with its own oddities, which blossoms neatly into the mystery of the Hogwarts Letters, and then into the excitement of discovering that world.  [Rowling] has so many interest-engines going simultaneously that a reader will almost certainly keep going. [And these multiple "interest-engines" enable Rowling to constantly reward the curiosity of the reader with answers, but answers which change the immediate focus of the story, rather than being a simple breadcrumb trail that becomes monotonous and boring.]

Once the "discovery" theme has done its work, it lingers as a tool for exposition, and new mysteries and challenges present themselves.

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Technique in Tinker Tailor — Guillam is perforing a difficult task, which is interspersed with bits of remembered monologue by Smiley instructing him about how to do it.

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"Wheels within wheels."

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Karla (& Voldemort)
"Decades of his life were unaccounted for, and probably never would be, since the people he worked with had a way of dying off or keeping their mouths shut."

[Note: The villain conceals his background and activities . . . But "Control" is similar.]

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In his account of the interview with Karla, a good fraction of the conversation is between Smiley and himself, and not a simple dialogue, but the rehearsal of old pains and doubts.  How is this conveyed to the reader?

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"Few men can resist expressing their appetites when they are making a fantasy about themselves."

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Know the world of the story very well before you attempt to tell a story in it. — Stories emerge out of a world, and especially a known world.  The Chemist knows what to expect when two elements are combined, knowing the laws that govern their probable interactions.  The better the laws of the world are known, the better a storyteller will be able to construct the winding or unravelling of a thread within that world.

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"Know the facts, then try on stories like clothes."

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Get to know your cast of characters before you describe their behavior.

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What happens to people is often improbable and irrational, but their responses to it tend not to be.

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Layers of the Planning Process:
—The context (impersonal)
—The characters (personalities, problems, background)
[Note: Something right in Heidegger's suggestion that person and world are co-dependent.  In narrative, it is by relating things to characterization or intention and background that worlds are most easily characterized.]
—The plot (immediate occasion of events, pattern in which they unfold, the order in which information is disclosed to the reader)
—Characterization of events and style of exposition

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Suppose you have infinite resources and can simply build something.  What makes it interesting?  Evidently, after a while building you would begin to repeat yourself, and this would make both the act and the object tedious. [Unless of course you find the mere [quantitative] increase repeated forms appealing, . . . but this is an enjoyment not of the object of the act, but of the indeterminate potency of the object . . . a different thing.]

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So what *keeps* it interesting once one reaches this point?  The introduction of a new dimension of complexity or a new form, which either subsumes the prior form (triangles -> tetrahedron) or alternates with it (a tessellation involving multiple polygons).  In other words, one must either make something else or make something [new], using what you have made as the matter.  In fact, the mere idea of an infinite series of repeated forms is extremely tedious.

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There are no general cases, only particular cases.

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Note: What I like best about the Smiley novels is Smiley.  The thriller spy framework parts are enjoyable enough, but they're not where the magic is.  Analogously, the coolest thing about the Miyazaki documentary was Miyazaki.

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Miyazaki wonders if it is possible to make films that are important anymore.  I assume by "important" he means films that make an impact, make a difference to people.  Why would it be so difficult?  Supersaturation, perhaps.  Same problem as in publishing.  If you choose a medium which speaks to everyone, you will not be compensated and will be little heard.  But if you choose a small venue and limited medium you can make a greater impact.  [By speaking to fewer people, you can accomplish more, and be better-compensated.]

In other words, not just the medium, but the target audience ought to be tightened, to increase impact.  Tightened geographically.

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How do word-images differ from pictures?  Pictures are limited by the imagination of the artist more than [the imagination of] the viewer?

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Listen—you could make it.  You could do well.  But you have to make something you want a shot at making it.

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Story told as dialogue between narrator and listener.  Listener interjections set as freestanding italicized paragraphs.

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One of the keys to storytelling is not explaining.  You have to keep facts and explanations in reserve to keep the reader interested.  If you give everything up in the way that's easiest to follow, you won't be followed.  One advantage of time [as an ordering principle for narratives] is that the temporal order of events is constructed by chance and accident, with constant intervening complications and distractions.  You explain things as the occasion arises . . . But the occasions arising are various and have only incidental significance to anything you might want to relate.  So you value the occasion and enjoy it, not just for its importance to the story, but also for its own sake.

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Enjoy your memories! Let them return in full color and let them be saturated with detail.

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"I want to know about you." — Collecting other people's stories.

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The habit of writing with one's hand, with a pen, differs significantly enough from the habit of typing (by typewriter or by computer) . . .

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The imagination of the writer is based on his experiences.  If someone only has . . .