Thursday, August 25, 2011

The fault, dear Brutus... personal issues manifest as writing issues

I did a guest blog at Denny's place, and Carlene asked if we ever manage to learn enough from our mistakes in drafting so that we don't keep making them in subsequent books. She identified as an example POV issues that might keep recurring in an author's first drafts. So I took this as an opportunity to go off on the dark confluence of deep psychological issues and writing issues:

I suspect there are two kinds of "opportunities for revision." The first we'll learn our way out of as we get more experienced. Like I've been working a lot on scene endings, and I think I've learned (forever maybe!) to end a scene on conflict and never (except at the end of the book, of course) on resolution, so that the story (and reader) are always propelled into the next scene.

But there are the other issues which are more intrinsically bound to who we are and what we are and what issues matter to us in life and art. And those, I think, we won't learn our way out of in our fiction until we learn our way out of them in life. We keep "making the same mistake" or encountering the same issue because we're subconsciously seeking to revisit it, to worry it, to debate it.

For example, I'm revising much of my backlist preparatory to offering it on Kindle and Smashwords. I'm editing a lot, partly because of course I want the stories to be the best they can be, but also because I want to make enough change that I can justify new copyrights. (Note to self, look up the rules on this.)

Anyway, here I am, confronted with the product of my 1992 self, you know? The one who felt helpless and overwhelmed (little kids, sudden career success, major decisions to make but no real power to make them with, all that young mother time trouble). And I realize that I have several incidents of heroine action where she acts impulsively and perhaps recklessly, for no real purpose.

Why? What does this say about ME? What issue would have had me-- the back-then me-- continually having a heroine who would behave without the sort of right-there immediate motivation that I would counsel other writers to show?

Well, I don't want to get too personal-- I'm still married to the same guy, still have the same kids, still even-- I am so boring-- teaching (again, actually, not still) at the same school, so I probably ought not to remind myself of all that stuff back then. But let me just say that back then, I never behaved heedlessly. I never did anything I thought maybe I'd regret later. I spent those years being really, really careful.

And it showed paradoxically in my creation of a few heroines who did behave recklessly, who acted spontaneously without regard for consequence, who jumped out of airplanes without a parachute (figuratively... these took place in like 1815 :). IOW, they could afford to be stupid when I couldn't.

This was an issue in my life that came out in my writing. And I wasn't going to resolve it in my writing without resolving it in my life in one way or another.

So here it is, jeez, 20 years later, and I've given up that need to control, or at least that dire suspicion that if I said the wrong word or opened the wrong door, terrible things would happen and It Would All Be My Fault and I Can't Let That Happen.

I also-- age does this to women, thank goodness-- gave up on any real aspiration to be so adorably cute and unexpected like a kitten and decided to be a grown-up at some point.

Anyway, for whatever reason, that issue seems to have mostly resolved in my life, and I can look at my earlier book and see not a heroine who is insufficiently adorable (so that I must up the madcap-heiress ratio, which is what I'd have done back then), but rather insufficiently motivated to act and thus I must give her a good reason to do that madcap-heiress cute thing. (That is, I'm keeping the cute action, just giving her more reason to commit it.)  Here's how I did it.

1992 heroine, too stupid to live, too adorable to resist, is with hero in enemy territory, at the market fair of a French coastal town, across the Channel from Dorset (where he lives).  They are trying to get past the big contingent of French soldiers who are patrolling the docks to slip onto the smuggling sloop which by arrangement is going to sneak them out of France and back home.  Heroine espies Cute Plot Trick (a hot air balloon) and takes off in that direction and adorably madcappedly ends up in the air over the Channel with hero. (Their passage is in contravention, btw, of the whole prevailing winds issue, but that I dealt with mainly by having the hero marvel that, given the usual prevailing winds, the gods had favored them and sent northerly winds.)

This gives the hero a chance to Sternly Chastise Her and her a chance to be Suitably Adorably "sulky" (I swear, I'm going to do a Control-F and find every "sulk" in there and excise it, and "pout" beside… really, there's a limit to how adorable a non-kitten should be). But it doesn't make much sense, because they're in great danger, she's not actually that stupid, and the sloop they'd arranged is captained by his very own brother, of whom they're both pretty fond, and I don't think they'd put him in graver danger if they could help it.  Here's how I resolved it—I gave her a reason to do what she does, a reason beyond "I am so cute I can get away with being an idiot! In fact, the bigger idiot I am, the more proof it is that I'm adorable!"  Once I'd identified the 'need,' (that is, for more immediate external motivation), I had the answer just like that:

Michael (hero) is cognizant above all that his duty is to protect this princess he's bringing to England to marry a prince and cement an alliance. (It's a Lancelot-Guinevere story, natch.) And he knows his bro and knows that John, ever resourceful, tends to find a way out of bad situations. So he's more trusting than Tatiana (heroine) that they just have to get over there to the sloop and all will be well. Tatiana is, in her adorable way, less trusting of fate and less aware of how John has always managed to squirm out of every dilemma ever. So… here's the big change. They get close to the sloop and the military commander isn't just hassling John. He's about to ARREST John now. And so Tatiana runs off to steal the balloon (set up as an attraction for the fair—okay, dumb, but it's not HER dumbness at least ) to act as a diversion so that the military is drawn away from the sloop.  Might not be Wellingtonesque in its strategic brilliance, but hey, effective—she gets on the balloon, Michael, cursing, follows her to try and get her off, she gets it to ascend in order to have everyone down there (including military people) turn to gaze up at the balloon.  John takes advantage of the distraction to heave the military commander into the harbor, and he raises anchor and scoots out into the Channel.

There! Her adorable action is now to some purpose! 

And this actually solves another issue, a coincidence (groan) I'd forgotten about.  This town actually is directly across the Channel from his own estate. This isn't the coincidence part.  He and John have arranged to meet here because as boys (before the war) they used to sail down here to pick up chicks, or whatever boys did back then (they probably still picked up chicks, or tried to), and know it well.  The coincidence is that the balloon is going to end up crashing into his own land 32 miles north, direct hit, no action needed. Well, now, duh, I have John escaping from custody and sailing out into the Channel, and above are Michael and Tatiana. So John could point the sloop in the right direction, kind of like an arrow, and Michael can follow that and figure out a bit how to maneuver the craft (he's an experienced sailor, so understands winds). And with John's example below, he doesn't just happen onto his own land, but aims for it because he knows he can land in an open field there and not on the brow of a cliff.

So much more purposeful and directed, but without that terrible fear and insecurity I had  when I first wrote it!

I really don't think I could have resolved that so quickly  back then. Oh, maybe I could have done it deliberately, like if the editor pointed it out and suggested how to fix it. But I really don't know if I would have identified it as an issue. And I certainly wouldn't effortlessly-- as I just did-- have come up with the right solution, or at least a workable one. I guess I'm saying I had to grow up. :)

So... armchair diagnosis here, or at least armchair speculation. If I were having POV issues that I couldn't learn my way out of, well, I probably wouldn't know what the problem is. But as an outsider, and if YOU were having that recurrent issue, I might ask if there was some identity issue going on-- POV is -usually- about identity. For example, and we're just using this and "you" as examples, okay? I'm not actually trying to delve into your personality . Do you think maybe you have a bit of trouble "escaping the surly bounds of self," maybe, and "becoming" someone else? (Due to, perhaps, too much encroachment by family, or too little regard earlier in life for your own feelings so now you are more careful to assert "what is me and what I value".) This could result in shallow POV, the inability to get too deep into a character.

Or is a recurrent POV issue more a problem with too quick identification with others, too much empathy almost? That can lead to headhopping, maybe, because everyone's opinion seems equally important in this scene.

Just a thought. This isn't therapy, but it might be interesting to look at the issues that keep arising in our stories and speculate about what IN US might cause them. That is... the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our plotting, but in ourselves. :)

What do you think?


Carlene said...

Dear Alicia!
This really was a great source of writer therapy! Identifying and diagnosing things the way you did in your own writing and then the questions you posed to us was very beneficial. I truly believe my POV issues probably come from being empathetic and wanting everyone to have their say. I was a little embarassed to ask you that question on Denny's blog but I'm so glad I did! Thank you so much!

Edittorrent said...

Carlene, that actually makes sense. I mean, if you're used to saying, "Paula, what do you think? and John, how about you?" it might be sort of hard to get into the mindset that only Paula's thoughts and feelings matter right here. This could be the time that you write the first draft in first person of the character who will be the POV character in the scene, and tell her/him to be self-absorbed and selfish and it's okay.(G)

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Very interesting! Next time I get a significant critique, maybe I'll think about whether it's my writing or me.

Also, you've just explained most of Twilight to me with the "too stupid to live, too adorable to resist" thing. Bella doesn't need motivation, her motivation is adorable-kitten-ness!

Edittorrent said...

Claire, and you can see why that would appeal to teen girls, who haven't the power really usually to shape their world, and sometimes think they'll have to rely on "cute".

gj said...

I've seen some POV issues that seem to arise out of the author's fear that the emotions have gotten too intense -- the pov switches right when things get really, really difficult for the pov character, and goes to someone who's not having as difficult a time.

It's disaster for the tension in the scene, but it mimics what some of us (raising hand here and admitting guilt) do in real life. We sidle up to a problem, and then dance away from it.

Anyway, not saying that's the underlying issue for all POV troubles, but it's something to consider when tempted to switch povs: is the switch for the reader's benefit, will it increase the tension, or will it defuse the tension because the author avoiding something she doesn't want to face?

Edittorrent said...

GJ, boy, do I know that "fear of tension." Sometimes it's actually effective-- switching at a tense point might heighten suspense-- but when it's done out of the writer's discomfort with extremes, I bet it diminishes suspense.

Hmm. That's actually a "me-issue"-- I know I've done that myself.