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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-01-25 16:49
Subject: [writing] "America, Such as She Is"
Security: Public
Location:Peet's Coffee on SE Hawthorne
Mood:thoughtful
Music:coffee house music
Tags:process, stories, writing
Just put the wrap on the novella "America, Such as She Is." Rewritten to editorial direction, with extensive feedback from various readers. (And a huge thank you to those folks.)

I've done a couple of things with this story which are risky.

First, I disregarded much of the editorial feedback. Not the intent of it, but the details. The intent was that I clarify a number of ambiguities in the story, and clarify the meaning of the ending as well as some key events within the narrative. The particular suggestions and requests would have required me to address the highly nontraditional structure of the story in a way which I wasn't prepared to do.

Win, lose or draw, the story is built around that structure, and I think the piece would much less remarkable than it has the potential to be if I smoothed out those kinks. Sort of like lacquering over the curious grain in a piece of found wood. The editors are free to disagree with my disagreement, but it is my sincere hope that I have solved enough of the issues that the structure will no longer seem so troublesome to them.

Second, part of what concerns them about the structure is my application of what I call a "parachute technique." Which is to say, many if not most writerly techniques will work even if not quite fully successful -- you can mess up voice a little, hit a few flat notes with characterization, what have you, and still have a readable, even good story. To a significant degree, it is these very imperfections which constitute a given author's style. Sort of like Leonard Cohen's singing voice.

A parachute technique is a technique which fails utterly if it is not completely successful. There is no middle ground, no B- grade. Either you land upright and healthy or you augur broken-necked into the cow pies.

The particular parachute technique in question is cultivating a deliberately crafted ambiguity in the plot and narrative structure to support multiple possible endings, all of which are valid, all of which are substantiated by textual evidence, and none of which run over the others. In other words, the inevitability of story which must be implicit in the beginning is branched at the end.

I've published over 200 short stories, and pulled this ending off twice. Once in "The Oxygen Man", and once in "Heading West." In both stories, the branching ambiguity is built into the conclusion of the narrative, and involves eliding the validation. I learned this trick from Bill Morrissey's song "Waiting for the Rain," which as I've said before is an entire seminar in plot and narrative technique in just less three and a half minutes. (I could certainly teach storycraft for an hour or two off that song.)

In "America, Such as She Is", I applied this technique to the entire damned story, not just the end. Risky as hell, especially across 20,000+ words, but I think I've got it working. Hopefully my changes have balanced the piece enough that the editors agree.

As always, the story belongs to the reader. What I think stops mattering when I send off the file to the market. But still...this is a tough business, but by damn is it fun.
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scottedelman
User: scottedelman
Date: 2008-01-26 02:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To a significant degree, it is these very imperfections which constitute a given author's style. Sort of like Leonard Cohen's singing voice.

I agree completely. I believe it was Tony Bennett who once said, "What they called my flaws when I was young, now that I'm successful they call my style." I share that quote whenever I teach writing.
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selfavowedgeek
User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2008-01-26 02:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jay, I've enjoyed lurking and reading your posts about story craft and your own personal creative process. Your newest one sounds quite interesting, and I hope you have success with it.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-26 02:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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calendula_witch: Books
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-01-26 03:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Books
Over 200 published short stories. Wow. I got yet another rejection today, and this one HURT. (I've gotten so many, usually I don't feel them any more...) I don't know why. Anyway--this is not about me--the question is, how many rejections did you get before the first success, however small? You obviously (and with much reason) believe in your talent, your craft, your art. How did you stay positive--or, how did you stay focused, anyway?

I mean, they all tell me my writing is good and compelling, "but...".... Okay, I guess it is sort of about me. Sorry. :-)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-26 04:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Mmm...maybe 250 rejections between 1990, when I first started seriously sending out, and 2001, when I first sold. I reset my data trail in 2000, and I've had over 1,000 rejections since then. I still get between 3 and 4 rejections for every sale, and there are key markets to which I have never sold.
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calendula_witch: demon
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-01-26 04:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:demon
You wrote/sent out seriously for 11 years before your first sale? Oh man. I am humbled. :-) I mean, inspired. Comforted. Something.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-26 04:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Didn't you see my recent post on my career timeline?

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/1327449.html

I think it's a constructive message -- e.g., I am not superman, just someone who labored in obscurity for a very long time before becoming slightly less obscure.
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calendula_witch: demon
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-01-26 04:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:demon
I did see it, yes...I guess I didn't internalize it. I do read your blog every day. :-) Perhaps I didn't want to read the underlying message.

O how I aspire to slightly less obscurity!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-26 04:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I wasn't taking you to task! Just pointing out the details inside the devil.
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calendula_witch: demon
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-01-26 04:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:demon
I know you weren't--you're so inspirational-- but, gah. Tough day, sorry. I'll be quiet now. :-)
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Tim W. Burke: Salute!
User: timwb
Date: 2008-01-26 05:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Salute!
I read the lyrics of "Waiting for the Rain" and yeah, the descritions and building of mood is gorgeous.
But it seems more the end of a story rather than an entire plot with arc, conflict, etc.
Could you elaborate regarding its value re plot?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-26 07:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You should listen to it. The music absolutely supports the haunting mood of the text.

Taking a quick crack at your question now. I'm up way past my bedtime, and will be up early driving 3 hrs tomorrow morning to attend a funeral, so I reserve the right to revisit this later. However...

First of all, we normally associate plot with action within the story, but the two aren't inherently synonymous. You can have story action which doesn't advance the plot — this happens a lot in novels — or you can have plot which is advanced through exposition or some other means.

So the Morrissey song has virtually no action. There's the oncoming weather front, the lightning starts a fire, the husband fetches a shotgun, and speaks one word. That's it. And you're right, no plot there to speak of.

Now think about the classic seven point plot outline that Algis Budrys has described.

Character in a setting with a problem, attempts a solution, tries and fails (repeat as necessary), achieves insight, followed by a resolution (possibly unsuccessful, then a validation. More cogent descriptions here.

We certainly have characters (the farm couple) in a setting (the farm) with a problem (persistent drought accompanied by mind numbing heat, with resultant mental distress).

Solution attempts have occurred in the backstory of the song (waiting out the drought, their other work ["there was work to do, but they both forgot, like it's never been anything but hot"]).

An insight occur within the text of the song (Husband decides/realizes wife is crazy).

A solution attempt occurs within the text of the song (implied by his action of picking up the gun).

Another solution attempt occurs more or less simultaneously within the text of the song (storm arrives, validating their implied strategy of waiting for a break in the weather).

Up to this point, the plot of the song is very clear. Admittedly some of the elements are a bit oblique, but they are all accountably present.

To my mind the genius of the song, from a plot perspective is that the resolution and validation of the plot is truncated by the penultimate line ("he puts two shells in the gun and calls her name"). At that point, narrative inevitability is firmly established. Except it points in two directions. Did he call her name to say good-bye as he shot her? Did he call her name to say good-bye as he shot himself?

Morrissey could have given us the answer in a final couplet or verse, very easily. Most songwriters would have. But he set up the plot narrative so elegantly that the text ends before the story does, and the listener isn't frustrated by that.

Did that make sense? Or am I too tired?
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tetar
User: tetar
Date: 2008-01-26 17:43 (UTC)
Subject: Two
Two shells, man. He's going to shoot her, then himself. The storm has broken.
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Tim W. Burke: What I Look Like
User: timwb
Date: 2008-01-27 02:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:What I Look Like
I understand what you are saying, and I appreciate your taking the time in such extreme circumstances to help.

On reflection, the song is somewhat like "The Cask of Amontillado." The motive for the walling-up is vague backstory, but the resolution is clear. The farmer's backstory is concrete, but the resolution left vague. New thought: this is more like "The Lady or the Tiger."

I wonder about the protagonist and POV used. Our waller-upper-of-Montressor (can't think of name) is probably insane. The farmer is temporarily insane. The Princess is in an immoral society with 50% chance of committing 2nd degree murder. A subjective POV provides justification for the first two, while an objective POV keeps the third as an intellectual exercise.

If its a subjective POV, there must be something within that universes that declares the moral value of the action. Poe's vagueness (to me) implies that nothing is worth walling up a guy. The music tells us the farmer's actions are not a cause of celebration (if the tune was perky, we'd have a problem).

I'm a little caffeinated right now. Is this making sense, or am I off the mark?

(For reasons left best for another day, I will say that I am not a fan of unresolved endings.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-27 21:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're making sense. When I have time, I'll promote this whole discussion to a new post.
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russ: watchmen
User: goulo
Date: 2008-01-26 06:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:watchmen
Without seeing the story, all I can say is it sounds risky indeed, possibly quite interesting, or possibly quite annoying. :) In any case, good luck!

A parachute technique is a technique which fails utterly if it is not completely successful. There is no middle ground, no B- grade. Either you land upright and healthy or you augur broken-necked into the cow pies.
Of course your meaning is clear, but FYI the metaphor is a bit broken... (perhaps contrary to popular belief) there is a middle ground. I know someone who had a parachute accident (leading to various broken bones and being bed-ridden for a few months, but not death) and through him have heard of various other non-fatal parachute accidents.
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tetar
User: tetar
Date: 2008-01-26 17:39 (UTC)
Subject: Ambigwatitty
Took me ten straight work days once to think through a story of the type you describe here, then two or three actually to write it. At the end I had a story editors have found banal, ambiguous, or too straightforward, depending on the ending they saw as inevitable. Do you confront the problem of interpretation when deciding things about a story, given that it can jolly well botch a sale? Or is this one of the chips one lets fall where and as they may?

And yes, once the reader has it, it's the reader's tale. That's a given.
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Lawrence M. Schoen
User: klingonguy
Date: 2008-01-26 19:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I just finished reading through the new novella, and I think you did an admirable job of explicating the ambiguities in such a way that the troubles aspects of the structure came through as much less troublesome (at least for me, I still need to confer with my co-editor).

I have other bits of feedback which I will share with you along more private modes and on another day, but I can happily say that I find this to be a much stronger novella.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-27 04:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I believe the game has been very much worth the candle at this point. Thank you, sir, and I look forward to hearing more.
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