Kurt Vonnegut once wrote down a list of guidelines he personally abided by when writing short stories. I’m trying to keep them in mind with the NaNoWriMo yarn, even though the finished product will presumably be a novel rather than a short story. Brevity is a particular quality in fiction-writing I’m striving to improve upon.
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I initially started SILVER BROWN as an art therapy project. The main reason I put it online was to fully test its potential to be anything beyond that. It was a worthwhile exercise as an art therapy project. As was putting it online. I drank a rich soup of vibes from the droppings of the Great Bird (i.e. Twitter) and professional input from a gaggle of fellow scribes, which provided me with vital nutrients to open my third eye and see that SILVER BROWN cannot continue in its present form as I originally planned. This story needs just a pinch of reconstructive surgery.
Before I expand on that further, let me drop a parable about burritos. This is one of a handful of things I know how to cook well. Learned entirely by observation, at a burrito joint I visited almost every business day at noon back when I had a supposedly glamourous job. Said joint famously lacked a barrier obstructing the patrons’ view of the kitchen, allowing for the visual spectacle of burrito wizards working their magic behind the scenes. Who taught me (almost) everything I know. About burritos, at least.
Part of the high art of making burritos is knowing how much filling one tortilla can handle. If you try to stuff too much in a single burrito, the whole thing is bound to split at the sides and fall apart sometime during the cooking process. A fictional world vastly different from the familiar is a lot like that burrito. There’s only so much you can put on a tortilla of a hundred thousand words. I initially set out to make SILVER BROWN less grandiose than any of my previous attempts to write a novel, but still found myself trying to stuff a trilogy’s worth of filling in that tortilla. More pre-planning was required for the project, methinks. Next time I mustn’t allow myself to become so distracted with the world in which the story is set that I forget to actually tell the story.
There are also questions swirling in my mind about whether there is still a public appetite for dystopian fiction, now that the present state of human society has taken on a dystopian air. The world humanity lived in when I first started working on SILVER BROWN has since molted. Its new instar bears a closer resemblance to the Environment of my story, in that it’s a world where technology and mass-ignorance has run amok. Hence I must ask myself: would people actually pay money to read this yarn I’m working on? Part of the reason why people read novels is for the escapism. They might be reluctant to read something that hits painfully too close to home. I could be dead wrong; the jury’s still out on that one. Black Mirror has temporarily ceased production because the producers thought it would be too depressing for people to watch in light of that microscopic Cthulhu coming along and ruining everything. Yet according to hard statistics, people are watching movies like Outbreak while they’re in quarantine.
Uncertainties about a potential audience don’t justify a literary facelift as much as the story’s heroine, however. Florys MacNab was subconsciously conceived as a satirical caricature of the vapidly callous materialism exhibited by more than a few people I met back in the day when I worked in one of Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. There’s certainly a place for a character of this ilk in fiction, but in retrospect it was a mistake to make her the protagonist. I’m finding it next to impossible to root for somebody who values things over people, whose entire modus operandi revolves around acquiring and flaunting status symbols and making other people jealous. If I can’t root for that somebody, it’s unlikely my audience will be able to either.
This fictional world I’ve created demands a main character who is at least somewhat flexible and adaptable, who approaches novel phenomena with a certain level of curiosity. That’s not Florys. Florys is way too narrow-minded and hardheaded to be the main character. She would work better as a secondary character. One who repeatedly complicates things for the hero, and (probably) dies in the story’s third act for dramatic effect.
I guess I shouldn’t feel bad about things not working out this time around. As a certain wise man once said…
…but at least I’ve spent enough time wallowing in that shit that new vegetation can start growing on me. I was thinking about going with the same basic plot device, but with a completely different perspective, major characters reworked and fine-tuned (except Sherman, he’s perfect the way he is). Before I start germinating anything new on my ass however, I shall disperse the last of the current yield in the summer. The final chapters are the strangest in the whole book, so of course I’m going to tweet that shit.
Most of the books I read during the (first?) COVID-19 lockdown were textbooks. As in, non-fiction. Try not to hate me for that; I have always consumed a wide gamut of literature. Figured I should make the best of a bad situation, using the downtime to learn a few new skills. For the inevitable moments when I felt like banging my head against a brick wall, be it from writer’s block, the fate of nations or a particularly troublesome bug in some app I was building, it was Netflix to the rescue.
The other night I happened across some animated series from India (presented in the original Hindi with no dubbing whatsoever, which I appreciated) depicting the hypothetical wacky adventures of Ganesha as a boy. A kids’ show, obviously. But kids’ shows are (more often than not) the shit after a couple of bong rips, so I decided to check it out. At first I found Bal Ganesh endlessly fascinating. I was being offered a glimpse into what kind of Saturday morning cartoons I would’ve been watching had the Fates decreed I be born on a different continent. Subsequent episodes impressed upon me that this was exactly like one of those gawd-awful religious shows my cousins used to watch when they were kids (if you have never heard of Psalty the Singing Songbook, consider yourself blessed), only with a Hindu angle to it. Once it dawned on me that every episode of this series basically has the same plot, the fatal flaw in its premise became abundantly clear to me; a flash of insight which I immediately tweeted…