Learning from the Pros

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What would you say to your favorite author if you met her? I recently had the opportunity to meet the one author who has been most influential to my writing: Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold writes science fiction and fantasy novels. Her major series, the Vorkosigan books, follow her handicapped protagonist Miles Vorkosigan through his struggles against, well, himself, mostly. One of her later books in the series, Memory, is one of the most perfect books I have ever read. (A caveat: While all her books can be read as stand-alones, the emotional impact of Memory is far greater if you understand Miles’s history.)

Reading Bujold sparked a major desire to take up writing again. While her books provided numerous personal ‘aha!’ moments unrelated to writing, they and some of the comments she’s made about her writing process provided more than a few craft related ‘aha’ moments as well. I really wanted to corner her for an hour or so, and pump her about writing. When I had the opportunity to meet her at a very small, low key filk convention, I told the friend who arranged for her to be there that I would move heaven and earth to show up. (The short definition of filk is ‘songs of the science fiction and fantasy fan community’.)

I spent hours and hours before the convention rehearsing what I would say to her. Among the things I wanted to say was:

“I want someday to write as well as you do. Not ‘like you do’, because I want to write like I do, but to craft stories with characters as memorable as yours, craft relationships with the same intense and vibrant realities that yours have, and plots as thrilling as yours are.”

The only part of that I actually said was “I want someday to write as well as you do.”

To which she replied, “Keep working at it. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. I know.”

And one of the reasons Bujold is my favorite author is because I know she knows. You can see the changes, the growth in her writing as you read through her series. And unlike the majority of series authors I have read, her books just get better and better and better. Because she’s been honing her craft, stretching herself, and exploring possibilities. And as I read with her, I stretch out too. Aha moment: Growth as a writer comes with practice and with exploration.

She explains in the Afterword of Cordelia’s Honor “…the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask ‘So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?’ And then do it.”

This was my first introduction to the concept of character driven writing. Previously I had been a very plot oriented writer, but I always felt the plots were too weak to really drive the story. Perhaps I was taking the wrong approach. Perhaps the character should drive the plot instead of the plot driving the character. I took another look at all the books I had read over the years, and asked myself why the memorable ones were memorable. And the answer was almost always “Because the characters were like real people to me.” I guess this was less of an “aha!” moment and more of a slow revolution in my way of thinking about my plots, but I think it was one of the most important things I learned. I am still struggling to implement character driven writing in my own stories, but I know it is worth the effort.

Bujold also realizes that the words that end up on the page are only half the story. The other half doesn’t come about until those words are processed by the reader’s mind. And each reader’s mind is different, and brings in a different world-view and different prior experience. The words on the page, the action on the screen; these things are not viewed in a vacuum. In her essay “The Unsung Collaborator” (found in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma), Bujold explains that readers will fill in the gaps in a story with detail the author might never have imagined. As she further explains in “When World Views Collide“, it is the interaction between the author’s world-view and the reader’s world-view that will make or break a story for any particular reader.

At the filk convention, Bujold once again acknowledged and respected the amount of work and investment readers put into her stories. My “aha!” moment: By acknowledging that the story is finished in the brain of the reader, you learn to convey the story so that most people take the journey you want to send them on. But you must be ready for them to take a slightly different path than the one you paved, or even to stray off the path into a story experience of their own choosing. And nothing you write can prevent that from happening.

Even casual conversation can trigger “aha!” moments. As I was leaving the con, I went to say good-bye to Lois, and thank her again for her stories and her insights into the writing processes. As I approached, she was talking with one of the performers about a song the based on a key scene in Memory. Bujold said, “I am glad that you recognized that was the true climax of the book. A lot of people think the action after that scene is where the climax occurs, but the true climax was the emotional one. The action afterward is just winding things up.” “Aha!” moment: The emotional climax of a story can be independent of the physical climax, and is the more important of the two. It all circles back to the idea that the character’s development is what really moves the story.

As I said goodbye, I told her, “I am extremely glad I had a chance to meet you. I’m sure a gazillion people tell you this, but you have really been a profound influence in both my life and my writing.” She admitted “a few dozen” people have said that, and she sometimes found the idea a little unnerving. She added that she set out to write to please herself, mostly. My latest Bujold inspired “Aha!” moment: Write stories that please yourself first, and, in the words of her character Emperor Gregor, “Let’s see what happens.”

Final Poll Results

Setting Exercises #1 + #2

A Pen In Each Hand

By The Bellman

  1. Describe the same setting through the eyes of three different characters. Pick characters with different personalities and life experiences. For example, you might use a young child, a business man, and a dog.

By Beaver

  1. Read the opening paragraphs of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (below). Look at this excerpt as an editor would: Does the writer use active verbs? Count the number of times he uses was/were, is/are, has/have/had. How many adjective-noun combinations do you see? List them. How many adjective-adjective-noun combos? How many times does the main character’s name appear in this passage? Count the number of adverbs used in this excerpt. What nouns/verbs/adjectives/adverbs does the writer use more than once? Does this add to or detract from the story? Based on your analysis, what is your opinion of the selection? Rewrite this passage in your own words, correcting any flaws you found in the piece and giving it your own voice and style.

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.”