Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why Story Should Never Be Rational

  The Publisher of a company for which you rose through ranks to become editor in chief struck you from your first meeting as an individual who would appear under various guises in many of your fictions.  

Although well over twenty-five years have elapsed since you were in his employ, his outspoken literalness and fervent quests for direct, cause-and-effect answers to his questions and solutions to his problems made him the memorable force in your memory he became and yet remains.

An additional layer of chemistry you were reminded of in his presence was the similarities between him and a number of academics with whom you had associations over the years and continue to have to this day.

You had not long been in the employ of this individual when you were instrumental in the assignment of subsidiary rights for a book his company had published prior to your employ.  The work in question, a useful dictionary of terms, was published by your employer in hardcover.  A quick phone call to a friend at a massmarket publisher in New York resulted in a one-time, yes-or-no offer of $35,000 for rights to publish a trade paper edition for distribution throughout the world.  

At the time, $35,000 was mid range for such transactions, but to your new company, which had never considered subsidiary rights, the sum, which by contractual obligation they were to share on a fifty-fifty basis with the author, was an unheard of boon.

In your first actual conversation with the Publisher, he wished to know your rationale for arriving at the figure of $35,000 when it would have been as low as, say $20,000 or $25,000 or as high as, say, $50,000.  Your reply linked the tone of the New York editor's voice to the amount you suggested.  Your publisher wanted to know how you rationalized that figure.  When you told him you did not rationalize it, rather that you'd mentioned the first figure that came to your mind, your publisher reminded you that your process had not been rational, to which you replied that in your experience, which up to that time had been somewhere between good and extensive, there was very little of the rational in publishing.  But from his response, which was a series of facial gymnastics, you knew some sort of fuse had been lit.

About five years later, after your job description and pay rate had described what you'd come to consider the apogee of their potentials, you arrived at work one day wearing what was far and away your most favored sports jacket, selected from a trove of bolts of cloth, then tailored to your measurements, hanging from your shoulders as a bespoke jacket, in all its houndstooth glory, should hang.  Because of the intensity of the houndstooth pattern, you wore a solid color blue shirt, one of your few solid color shirts.  To complete the presentation, you wore a tie with a pattern often described as regimental stripe.

"How," the Publisher asked, "can you rationalize a striped tie with such an aggressive houndstooth pattern?"

By this time, you'd had over five years of being requested to rationalize such variables as your choice in clothing, your reasons for editorial decisions, and your insistence on at least a quarterly list of suggested book titles or subject areas from the Sales Department.  Your reply, if it may be seen as such, was that you didn't rationalize, rather you took all the colors and shapes into consideration, seemed pleased with the aggregate results, then set forth to enjoy your day.

Not long thereafter, you heard the sizzle of another fuse, being brought to life, along with the acrid persistence of something burning.  Some fuses are shorter than others; this fuse was lit the first time you were asked about your rational processes.  It is not so much that you have none, rather it is how you use the ones you employ and trust.

You do not care for rational characters.  As a result, you have created few of them, and when you did, more often than not, their armature was your then Publisher, about which you wrapped other layers of behavioral quirks.

The subject of rational process and thought came up at considerable length in today's fiction workshop.  One of your very best students observed in no uncertain--and certainly not rational--terms how mistaken the writer is who bases characters and behavior on logic.

You not only agree with that, you cheer the vision.  In the manner of the musician practicing the playing of his instrument, you take delight in creating characters for whom having rational process (singular or plural) is not an option.  Characters such as Ishmael and Huck Finn may begin on a rational plateau, but they have no sooner gained a foothold therein when they are dispatched, sprawling into a free fall that cannot be halted by anything rational, lest it seem like that splendid editorial mark,DXM, you scrawl when necessary on manuscripts whether they are students, clients or yours.  

DXM, short for deus ex machina, the lowering of gods onto the stage in a basket to their deliberate and mechanical deeds from which the reader is to assume the fate of the story was, all this time, in their hands, not the characters' hands. This designation is an urgent note to the author:  Take the reins off, let the characters do as they will, even though you might assume it wrong.  

If a character has to be made to seem rational, that character does not seem to come to life until he or she is placed alongside an irrational foil, who will make the rational behavior stand out, in ironic register, as negative in his or her difference.

When you've played this game well and in truth, the characters will take the opportunity to leave their ankle CPS behind, and, like Huck, take off for the territory ahead.  Huck was talking about civilized, but he may just as well have been talking about rational, and he's been there before. 

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