In this series of posts, I’ve invited the reader to see a story as a “meaning-generating system”, and story-writing akin to a simulation that requires good initial conditions to run properly. Now I have some more thoughts on this analogy, on reading other people’s writing, and some final messages.
Sometimes simulations are chains of smaller simulations. Simulations within simulations!
Example: Franzen said “The Corrections” is “five linked novellas.” So then we can break it down into five components, the input of novella 1 sent to novella 2 and so on. Those novellas have chapters, and those chapters have sections, each sub-systems running different sub-routines for some greater whole, generating meaning and passing it from one simulation to the next.
Dostoyevsky’s tomes are usually split into “Book the First”, “Book the Second” etc, and the same principle applies.
Short story writers attempting novels for the first time often refer to them as a series of short stories. And fair enough.
The analogy holds up no matter how big or small the system is! At one end, the story ideas you don’t pursue are the inert components that don’t do anything in the reactor. At the other end, 1000-page novels are factories, with systems and sub-systems that can be scrutinised and re-run to test the effect on the whole machine. Book series are like systems of factories in a production line.
So we’ve covered that most of writing is re-writing. Similarly, reading is re-reading.
Once you can see other people’s writing as a mixture of different components, you can “uncook the ingredients.” My first dumb analogy, but you get what I mean.
Very few stories don’t reveal their mechanisms on repeat readings. And, much like you read through your own story drafts collecting different errors, you can read through other people’s stories and focus on different aspects of storytelling: plot, setting, characterisation, structure etc.
Once you have the components, in your own writing you can say to yourself, “I think what we need here is to run program(Cormac McCarthy).” In William Gibson’s Paris Review interview, he referred to other authors as “pedals”: “revving Ballard” for example.
This may seem cynical—but applying an author’s style is just choosing a sub-system. The overall system will still be unique if the combination is different. And this combination is just one level on which you are making the decisions. It still represents your style.
When I read my stories back, I can feel in different paragraphs which real-life event, thing someone said, person I was thinking of, film I saw, story I read, thing that was happening to me at the time. All these are just a unique set of launching pads.
Okay, one final thought on the re-iteration process of redrafting: remember that whatever flaws are there are going to be most apparent to you, and that it’s impossible to read your own writing with the freshness of its first reader. You may get this way in the future, but it’s not worth considering. I’d advise focusing on the secondary joy of watching the thing get better, better, better—but never perfect.
Even if you’re less aware of the errors than an objective reader, only so much rigor can be expected of you. If you’ve seen the film “Annihilation”, check out this review of it, replete with error messages!
The complaints are valid, but the film suspended my disbelief enough to sweep me away. I loved it! And yet in many ways it is quite imperfect. Could do better. Who couldn’t?!
I think this is interesting: these errors meant that the film “didn’t work for that viewer.” But it still worked for me, either because I’m denser or more forgiving. I prefer the latter.
With more writing rigor, the film could’ve won over a larger audience. Those errors that I didn’t notice would’ve been corrected. That would hardly have impacted my viewing experience, but would’ve satisfied those more nitpicky folk.
There’s too much emphasis on subjectivity. It’s offered to easily appease people who didn’t do as good a job as they could have, and that review is a good example of what it means when a story “doesn’t work” for someone. Failure to resonate may be a question of rigor.
This also reveals how to interpret rejections. It’s rare that a story is a complete outright failure—but the more prestigious the publisher, the more rigor will be expected. And rigor can be approached systematically, using the method of these blog posts.
Writing is a skill you can learn like any other, and improving at it is tangible.
- You decide what works for you.
- Rigor is not the same as bullying yourself.
- Writing is always a light and inviting thing filled with the reward of meaning, requiring trust and curiosity.
- The easiest way to scare away trust and curiosity is to bully yourself and give up hope.
So believe in yourself, dirtbag!!