Tuesday, March 4, 2014


There are times when the perspective of mindless wandering through your personal history will deliver an insight as fresh and bubbly as a home-delivered pizza.  The most recent of these wanderings produced an insight you'd not sought but one which, nevertheless you value.

Early in your efforts to learn the tools of your craft, you brought a rigid determination to early drafts, in large part because you believed you needed a well-developed plot before you could begin.  At those times, you were aware of a singular defect, your inability to plot.  

Now, you can look back with amusement at the implications.  Then you fumed, fussed, thought, wrote notes, balled them up, then tossed them at your wastepaper basket.  Plot or design came first.  By the time you had such a design, often after hours, possibly days, you were pissed.  You brought being pissed to work.  Your being pissed showed.  Even you could see the results, which were that the salient aspect of your story was that it was written by an author who was pissed.

After a time, you were not satisfied with the result.  You had no problem with being pissed about political or historical things.  You had even less trouble being angry at things being done to persons by their superiors or by persons who went around feeling superior without any valid claim to superiority.  But you had as yet developed no way to channel your attitudes of impatience with and at the causes of injustice.

More time down the rabbit hole.  You had to learn how to get around the plotting problem.  When you began your deliberations about story with a focus on characters, you began to see how possible it was becoming for you to begin stories without the need for a plot and, thus, without the impatience of yore, relating to your ability to plot.

Soon, plot began to find itself lower and lower on your list of priorities.  Character was, and in many ways still is, the driving force for you.  Let those who were tricky, even smooth plotters plot away.  You felt the relief of wanting no more to do with their approach.

Story began to matter because you were moving away from the definitions depending on plot.  After a time, you realized you were at the crossed purpose of thinking of story as driven by the very concept of plot you'd discredited.  More and more, you were admiring writers who seemed to be telling engaging stories without having obvious traces of plot.  To be sure, there were reversals, conflicts, betrayals, shifting of allegiance, and the like, but these always seemed to come from character, not because the author had arrived at a spot where a thing had to happen.

You were aware of pacing, letting you know, after a certain point, that something was going to happen and that the protagonist was not going to be happy about it. If the protagonist were happy about it, watch out for unanticipated holes in the floor.  Check the air pressure of the tires.

Ah, now we were beginning to get it, weren't we?  One day, working to finish the novel for which MacCampbell had got you a contract for one of the best advances yet to come your way, you remembered something Raymond Chandler had written about, introducing a character, waving a gun, coming in through the window.  Your new character came in during a remarkable scene which you had before you now and may have to try soon to replicate for its enhanced learning potential.

This was back before the days of wireless phones and cell phones.  Your protagonist was on the phone with his girlfriend, who was breaking up with him when the man with the gun came in through the window.  Your protagonist covered the telephone with his hand, then told the gunman he'd have to come back later for whatever it was he wanted.  The gunman was not about to come back later, nor was the protagonist's about to be ex girlfriend about to be happy with his explanation of what was going on.

When MacCampbell read the scene, he wrote in the margin words to the effect that you pretty well couldn't have got your protagonist in more trouble, and he especially liked the idea that the gunman had climbed in the wrong window, thinking your protagonist to be someone other than who he was.  Alas, MacCampbell wrote, it all has to go, not because it isn't any good but because it is funny and this publisher does not wish to publish funny.  Let's save it for a publisher who likes funny.

Due to some mistake, the scene remained in the manuscript, the publisher loved it to the point of deciding he was going to publish what he called romantic intrigues that had funny in them.

Story had more or less seemed funny to you before that event, but it has become increasingly a vehicle for some revelation you considered funny.  Looking at the stories in your about-to-be-published collection, you see this as a given, your equivalent of plot.  At times, you try to imagine yourself telling students, there should be some funny thing in a story; story should turn on funny.  Every one of the twelve stories in the collection turn on funny.

Thus, from funny, you taught yourself how to plot or how at least to inject into your narrative something that turns on funny and which demonstrates one of the unarticulated things you knew almost from the get-go.  Funny is dramatic.  Perhaps you should say that funny is not a joke, it has structure, comes about as a result of quirky, pestered, obsessive individuals who are following their dreams.

You don't need the tools you're told you need, at least not until you learn how to do without them.  That may not be funny but it is ironic.  You don't have to be pissed to write about being pissed.  You often get better results writing about people who are trying their hardest not to show how pissed they are becoming.  You watch them, trying to keep in control, much in the same way you watch a skilled actor doing drunk by taking extra precautions to present extreme sober.

That may not be funny.  

But it is.

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