Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Transforming Terrible

Some years ago I wrote a terrible story.

At the time I finished it, of course, it didn’t seem terrible. Hot off the typewriter, it seemed like a small, highly polished gem. It was one of the first pieces of short fiction I had written, so perhaps I can be forgiven for over-appraising its worth at the time. But as the years passed and I began writing more stories, something about that one never seemed quite right. And yet, given frequent opportunities to burnish it a bit, I didn’t try to make it any better.

When the time came to assemble my first collection of short stories, Wer Means Man, and other Tales of Wonder and Terror (2010), it didn’t even make the initial cut-off. By then, I had long since acknowledged the awful truth.

It was a terrible story.

Then, several months ago, I was offered the opportunity to submit a story to an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired novelettes and novellas to be titled Space Eldritch. Lovecraft in Space! It was a chance I couldn’t pass up, so I began writing.

It wasn’t long before the idea I was struggling with juttered to a halt. It just wasn’t working.

That’s when I remembered the terrible story.

I went back to it, thought long and hard about it…and decided that it in fact contained the essence of what I wanted to say. Why not re-work it? A simple revision wouldn’t be sufficient because of the initial structural problems, but it still held promise. What it needed was a wholesale re-vamping.

Before proceeding any further, perhaps I should define what I think constitutes a story and how one can easily become terrible.

Stories have several foundational elements.

* They have Characters. Occasionally a story succeeds with a single character, but in almost every case, that character must struggle against something—environment, inner demons, the natural world in the form of storm or cold or other threats. More commonly, there are two (or more) fully defined individuals, one of whom is the focus of interest and empathy for readers, and the other, who acts as a counterpoint, an antagonist, a villain. The focal character—the protagonist—wants or needs something crucial that is obstructed by the villain or is in serious jeopardy because of the villain’s actions. Both characters need to be believable, vigorous (again, with a few exceptions), and multi-faceted.

In a terrible story, none of this happens. There may be performers, flat constructs who follow the writer’s playbook, but they fail to come alive. The sense of threat may not be sufficient or may not even exist; and when it is sufficient, the pseudo-characters do not respond to it credibly.   

* They have a Plot. That is, something significant occurs.  There is a legitimate conflict between two forces, the outcome of which is legitimately in doubt and, if achieved, will legitimately justify one and condemn the other. In the most extreme cases, the outcome may be life for one character, death for the other. The plot is sufficiently complex to generate interest but not too complex for the confines of the story; short stories are particularly vulnerable to overly skimpy, straight-line plots or bizarre, tortuous plots that extend well beyond the limits of the page count. A successful short story marries sufficient action to engaging characters, with the result that, at the end, readers feel a sense of completion, of satisfaction that just enough has been told … no more, no less.

In a terrible story, there may be either no plot at all, or too much. Sometimes characters—who may in and of themselves spark some interest—simply talk at each other. Rarely to each other. They recite stock ideas as if the ideas themselves could replace action. They spend most of the time telling backstory or force-feeding readers apparently pertinent information and not enough doing anything. Or they are in constant motion, fidgeting through  strongly telegraphed, predetermined  events that build no suspense, create no tension, and ultimately signify … nothing.

* They have a Setting. Stories do not take place in a vacuum … and if they do, then the vacuum itself needs to be so clearly defined as to become virtually a character, as, for example, the emptiness of the moors does in Wuthering Heights. That story could not have taken place anywhere else; the same should hold true for any successful story. This does not mean that the writer has to describe every picture on every wall in every room of a house, but it does mean that readers should have enough of a sense of place to understand how it will become part of the conflict, how it will influence the characters. Far from being an ornamental excrescence or an exercise in willful description, setting should resonate with every other component of the story.

In a terrible story, setting is usually ignored. It is not uncommon, for example, to have a commonplace action-adventure plot arbitrarily set on one of Jupiter’s moons and, without any serious adaptation for place, hailed as science fiction. Or—moving in the opposite direction—it may be that a tight, psychologically intriguing horror story is simply plopped into a stereotypic haunted house, on the assumption that the story will enliven the setting. Either way, the parts of the story do not meld. 

* They are carefully written. In a novel of 150,000 words, a single poorly handled sentence, a misturned phrase, or an infelicitous word-choice will probably be forgiven, if even noticed. In a story of 1500 words, that same sentence, phrase, or word might destroy verisimilitude, create distrust in a character, turn an intense action into momentary parody, or in any number of other ways disrupt the story’s flow. And thus kill the story. Successful stories allow readers to come to the end without even noticing the level of writing. Every word is such as to support character, plot, and setting. Change a key word or phrase, and the illusion of life might dissipate.

In a terrible story, writing is peripheral at best; sloppy, inaccurate, inadequate, or distracting at the worst. Without getting into such proofreading issues as spelling, grammar, and punctuation (although they are critical), the care—or carelessness—with which a story is told can undercut excellences in any of the other elements.

* They are entertaining. After all, why else would readers work their way through page after page? Successful stories—no matter whether they simultaneously communicate important ideas or suggest crucial themes or reflect out world either optimistically or pessimistically—successful stories entertain.

Terrible stories simply don't. Enough said.

All right, so why was my original story so terrible?

As I re-read it, I realized that—although it actually contained in embryo the possibility of a Lovecraftian Great Old One, something I wasn’t consciously considering when I first wrote it—it was woefully undeveloped in almost every element of storytelling.

It was pretentious from the first words. The original title, “‘Fortitude to Highest Victory’” reflected my Ph.D. work with John Milton’s Paradise Lost and, as I now saw, really had nothing to do with my story. It was just an opportunity for me to boast about having read the poem. As if that weren’t enough, on the final page, one of the characters actually quoted Milton … even though she/it was an alien on a planet light years from earth, millennia separated from earth. She also spoke Greek. Quite the knowledgeable creature.

It had no true characters. The story had actually begun accidentally. As I was looking up something else in the dictionary, I stumbled upon the Welsh word cwrth (pronounced like cooth), ‘an archaic stringed musical instrument, bearing a clear resemblance to the classical lyre, with the addition of a bow.’ For some reason the word caught my imagination. It looked alien, and the definition triggered an image of pregnancy, of swelling, so, logically enough, I started with a pregnant alien.  And that was as far as I went in characterization for her/it. The antagonist, I decided, would be somehow bug-like—you know, a “bug-eyed alien” also made literal. And he would be male. Other than that, and the stated fact that he represented an intergalactic Empire, I had no idea where he came from or what he was doing there. In the short space of the story, neither character had an opportunity to change in any substantive way. By the end, they were precisely what they had been at the beginning; there was, in fact, no story about them. Just authorial assertions.

It had no conflict. Almost everything that actually happened occurred outside of the heptagonal chamber and was reported second hand. The Cwrth—my protagonist—began by asserting a belief and never wavered. In the end, of course, she was proven right; but up until the final phrase, there was no warrant for her adamance.

There was an intrusion of something potentially interesting on the last page. A cloud appears on the distant (but undefined) horizon. It draws nearer:

Before Torcius could move, it had resolved itself into a fog, a mist, thick and impenetrable, but definitely inorganic—although there seemed to be a central core of darkness into which Torcius could not see.

Reading this now, perhaps twenty-five years later, I have no idea what I was trying to say. The passage seems to function as little more than an introduction to the quotation from Paradise Lost containing the phrase “Dark with excessive bright” (III, 375-381). But when I approached “‘Fortitude’” with the idea of salvaging what I could and transforming terrible into something better, it struck me that this might be how a Great Old One would appear if It were to sweep down upon a world. In the original, however, nothing happens that illuminates, as it were, the darkness.

Ultimately, the tale had no plot. It was a single episode, not a story, two characters without backgrounds or clear motivations talking to each other until the final paragraphs, when something finally happened. In addition, the story was stilted. Nearly every sentence was wordy, overburdened with information, some necessary, much tangential.

The story had no landscape, no setting, other than the seven-sided room in which the two meet. I think the “heptagonal chamber” was chosen as much for theological resonance as for anything, as if either alien would automatically respond to Earth-norm theology and symbology.

It was, perhaps worst of all, boring.

Actually, when I think about the story, I’m oddly impressed. It missed on every count. Pretentious. Overwritten. No plot. No characters. No setting. No conflict. Wow! am I good, or what?

Yet out of the wreckage that was “‘Fortitude to Highest Victory’” came “Space Opera,” a story I am proud to have appear along with fiction by D.J. Butler, Robert J Defendi, Carter Reid and Brad Torgerson, Nathan Shumate, Howard Tayler, and David J. West.

What happened? What made the difference?

First, a new title. The call for stories had specified an anthology incorporating space opera and H. P. Lovecraft’s mythic structure of Great Old Ones. The new title actually came before any key re-writing: “Space Opera.” I’m a great believer in italics; in this case, they indicate that the title mean something more than the standard phrase. The story was going to be about a violent clash between cultures, both obsessed by religion and utterly convinced of the rightness of their respective—and antithetical—causes. Opera suggests a certain level of drama, if not actual melodrama; it hints at ecclesiastical echoes through its root in ancient (human) languages; and it fits the characters’ mindsets.

The next thing to go was the obvious and gratuitous in-text reference to Milton. Allusions can be powerful; they invite into a story entire levels of additional storytelling. They remind readers of other characters and plots and settings that thematically or imagistically amplify the story being told, lend it greater depth and fullness. They do, however, need to be germane to the story. They need to point to something in the larger universe of storytelling that will make this tale better. If not, they are at best wasted words, at worst misdirection and pomposity. In a Lovecraft-based universe, Milton has no place.

For a story, one needs authentic Characters. “Space Opera” still focused on Torc and the Cwrth, but now they needed to be expanded. What were their motivations? How did their actions reflect their personalities? Which of the two seemed stronger? Which actually was?

Since both were aliens, a fair amount of anthropomorphism entered in. Both are functionally bipedal. Both are bilaterally symmetrical. Both recognize the visible symbols of pregnancy. Both can access spoken language (although I must admit to having some fun with the traditional space-opera convention of a translation-computer).

At the same time, however, they must also be alien, that is, other. How do they differ from us? How can those differences be incorporated into the plot? Which ones are crucial? Which incidental? To what extent do they simultaneously understand and misunderstand each other?

The next stage was to remember the basis of storytelling: Plot. A story might be defined as characters in conflict; taken as a whole, these two points constitute the action of the tale, its plot. “‘Fortitude’” had no action, so probably the most crucial step in transforming it was to establish that both characters wanted something critical and that their desires were mutually exclusive. One must win, the other must lose … in this case, die. 

That required knowing much more about Torc (as he is now called). Who is he/it? What is this nebulous Empire he represents? He must react in certain ways to the pregnant, female Cwrth; why would he do so? How would his presuppositions and assumptions make inevitable the clash between them?

Similarly, what would be the assumptions of a culture represented by an obviously pregnant female? In which, in fact, there are no significant males present? How would such a culture respond to the intrusion of the alien, the unexpected?

Answering these questions required both society-building and planet-building … which turned out to be much the most enjoyable part of writing “Space Opera.

Then there was the issue of Setting. One was no longer sufficient. In order for readers to understand each alien as representative of a species, a culture, a civilization, without huge blocks of assertion and interruptive back-information, it seemed best to show each in its own matrix. Torc is a space voyager; he appears in the opening paragraphs on the bridge of his ship. The Cwrth is a planet-dweller; she confronts the alien intruder, Torc, in the confines of a room sacred to her people … and critical to the Lovecraftian theme.

As to writing and entertainment value … well, trust me on this one—given where “‘Fortitude to Highest Victory’” ranked on either chart, the only way “Space Opera” could go was up.

“Space Opera” is a fundamentally different story from “‘Fortitude to Highest Victory.’” For one thing, at 10,000+ words it is three times longer. It took substantially more time, effort, and ingenuity to deal with than did the original; a huge part of the labor, in fact, related to deciding what and how much of the original was even worth salvaging, beyond Torc and the Cwrth. The process, though long, was  satisfying.  I came to know both Torc and the Cwrth more fully than before; I understood more fully what each had to lose or to gain; and I wrote from the beginning with the Lovecraftian theme in mind, even though it doesn’t appear until late in the story. But when it does … wow!

Is it still a ‘terrible’ story? Not to me, at any rate.

Is it a ‘better’ story? Yes.

Is it a ‘great’ story? I don’t know.

But please do give it a try—along with six other sterling pieces. Join the “Book Bomb” and get an eBook of Space Eldritch on Monday, October 29.

You won’t be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I'm about to start reading 'Space Opera' tonight.