Something I do with everything I write: switch the sex of the major characters. Not all at once: one at a time. How does the switch affect my sense of the character’s motivations? How about the relationships: is that other character still a lover, or is it now a friendship, or something else altogether?
And recently, I’ve tried temporarily switching the economic and social status of my characters as well. Would they still chase the bad guy down the sidewalk if they were likely to be shot by the first cop they encountered because of how they dress? Is their poverty a genuine part of their character, or is it just lazy motivation for the plot or an easy play for sympathy?
The goal here is not to create a statement about gender or status—that requires much more effort—but rather to shake loose my assumptions and received ideas & language. For me, anyway, the biggest obstacles to writing something really good is unstudied/implicit assumptions and received thinking & language, all of which are impediments to the precision of observation and language necessary for great fiction.
Dickens, at his best, writes his socially and economically challenged characters with dignity but a lack of any romanticism. They suffer, and that suffering doesn’t make them more noble or sympathetic than the aristocratic characters. Nor does it make them less so. Bleak House, for example, is a fascinating study of characters in/versus status.
There are many writers who set out to challenge the readers’ preconceptions of gender and status. But I’m talking about doing this temporarily on any story—even the giddiest action adventure—to challenge the writer’s preconceptions. Afterward, you’ll probably (but not necessarily) switch the characters’ sex back, but hopefully you’ll have caught those places where you were making lazy and uninteresting assumptions. Some visual artists will flip their work (or look at it in a mirror) or kill the color to shake up their viewpoint and catch problems they were overlooking. This is a writing equivalent.
It’s tricky in genre fiction, which is usually read in the context of its genre, and relies on/riffs off of tropes to avoid having to reinvent the entire universe each time. But for the most part, assumptions about gender and social/economic status are independent of these standards of setting.
There’s that time that photographers call the magic hour, when the sunlight goes amber and sideways and everything asserts its own common sense. And then there’s dusk, when the streetlamps try—and fail—to hold onto that amber and the stars check in for duty. But in between, there’s that moment that Magritte painted and Stevens called a rabbit-light, where both the sun and streetlamps are defined by where they are not: What I like about both those artists is that they didn’t use that moment as a metaphor for transition or being caught in between (don’t use the “T” word now, it’s lost to us for a while) but instead as the point of balance.
My ideas for stories are not so much building blocks as they are bait. I hold them out in some wild corner of my thoughts (the palm at the end of the mind) and wait days/weeks/months while the stories flitter at the edge of sight, and (readiness is all) hope for one to alight.
I’m working on two stories inspired by the “Did you know…” section of Wikipedia’s main page, which I use as a homepage. One is based on the medieval hunting ritual of Unmaking crossed with an article on the Glass Delusion of Charles VI, and the other is based on the phenomenon of the Prisoner’s Cinema. I honestly ain’t give a damn if Wikipedia is accurate: it’s a wackypedia grab-bag of story ideas…
I’ve been thinking about the non-trivial differences between a writer and a would-be writer—the trivial differences being writing anything at all, finishing that thing, and letting someone you wouldn’t trust with your life read it—and I think perhaps one such difference is: would-be writers find something of themselves in every character, and writers find something of every character in themselves.
The second week of my Clarion Write-a-Thon effort was somewhat the reverse of the first week. My first week story at Clarion 2010 had seemed like a complete loss at the time, but last week I stripped it down to the basics of motivation and conflict, and found what feels like a way forward. My second story at Clarion 2010, titled Goner, was perhaps my favorite at the time, but I’ve really struggled with revising it over this last week.
For the Clarion Write-a-Thon, I am revising the six drafts I wrote during Clarion 2010. My first week story is titled “The Last Cup”. I came up with the idea Saturday while driving down to San Diego with Clarion-mates Jennifer Hsyu and Dallas Taylor, and wrote it up over the next two days for my first critique that Tuesday.
Because Delia Sherman and special guest Ellen Kushner were the first week instructors, I went with a fantasy: just my second attempt at the genre up to that point. And for reasons that surely made sense at the time, e.g. delerium, I decided to go for comedy, which was entirely new for me. But the real test wasn’t the genre, it was the deadline: I had only written six stories ever up to that point, and each one had taken many weeks to complete. I got myself in a bit of a panic, and started just typing wildly; as it turned out, both the panic and the wild typing would continue for the next six weeks…!
I was going to post about the fantastic success of my Clarion 2010 classmates—the stacks of brilliant new stories, the furious take-no-prisoners Rejection contest, and most particularly the recent sales from Tamsyn Muir, Kali Wallace, Karin Tidbeck, John Chu, Tom Underberg, Adam Israel, and Leah Thomas—but Dustin Monk has already done so with style. And that’s just since Clarion: add in pre-Clarion sales and fully half of the class has been published; I have absolutely no doubt that you’ll be seeing stories from the rest of the group in the coming years.
Why am I so certain? Read on:
Six weeks, six stories, 152 pages, 31,000 words. Not to mention five one-on-ones with my writing heroes, three significant rewrites, strange and challenging writing exercises, over 2800 pages of personal critiques, and something like 80 stories from my Clarion-mates to read. Oh, and did I mention twenty-odd friends for life?