How fiction wriggles

I wouldn’t have thought writing a book was like a dance, but so it is. A dance with an unpredictable, muscular partner who keeps slipping free of your grasp to show you new steps.

The projects I work on have different dancing styles. For example, the epic fantasy liked to tango. He’d grab me by the waist and march off in one direction, then abruptly bend me backwards and start off on another tack. He loved to lead. He tended to be a little relentless in his pursuit of plot and structure. Sometimes I’d tell him to stop and enjoy the scenery, but he cried, “I’m epic! We have to get somewhere!” He gave me a bit of a backache.

The short stories, on the other hand, were children bouncing on my knee. They came in at odd angles and presented me with crushed dandelions, then ran off. If I was lucky, they took me by the hand and showed me a secret hiding place between two trees which no one else knew about. They had no interest in getting anywhere. They said, “love me for what I am.”

Now, there’s the WIP. She’s contemporary/historical fiction, so she pulls me in circles around a central issue, spinning, spinning. Each circle moves a little faster, pulls me in a little tighter. Each time, there’s a new revelation. I’m a bit dizzy. I say, “Wait. Wait! Move more slowly!” But she tells me, “Hush. I have something to show you. Here. Now here. Now understand what I did before. Now understand what I’m going to do next…”

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18 Responses to How fiction wriggles

  1. Bahiyyih says:

    Dazzling. Grippingly perfect metaphor.

  2. Bahiyyih says:

    Similar but that is all. Your dance is much more fluid than the spheres, cubes, pyramids round which I revolve. You are being revolved in the arms of the writing, which is infinitely more erotically charged and therefore more exciting for the reader. But what is the same is the form: I see the shape of the thing in the air, circular or square, like a sculpture – And so different every time.

    • MaryV says:

      I love that you can see the shape from the outside. I wish I could step out when I wanted, then let it sweep me away at other times. Best of both worlds…

  3. Bahiyyih says:

    No one else appears to know what the hell we’re talking about… Perhaps we’re bonkers.

  4. Helen Lowe says:

    Hi Mary, I’m intrigued that you see epic as a “he” and the contemporary/historical (should I detect time slip?) as “she” … As you know I’ve just completed a “Thornspell” short story and one of the things that I was really thinking about with that was how important it is not to pitch the “arc” too high, so that the reading experience felt whole and complete within that very short word space, i.e. around 2000, as opposed to 200,000 with “The Gathering of the Lost.” I think/hope it worked, but either way I agree that short fiction is a far more in the moment” experience. Although having said that, I also think structure is as important as with the epic, it’s just a different focus to the structure: as per Emily Dickinson: ‘tell it, but tell it slant.’ (I hope I got that quote right—and she was talking about poetry, of course, but then, I’ve always felt that the borders of poetry and short fiction ‘march.’)

    • MaryV says:

      Really the characterisation as ‘male’ (yang) is just my shorthand to describe forward-motion storytelling: ie, this happens, then that happens, and in parallel another thing happens across the world, and it’s all leading towards a big drumroll of a finish… etc. Whereas the so-called ‘female’ (yin) turns round a central issue instead of trying to ‘get somewhere’: ie, maybe the crisis is already past, and we’re just finding out about it now. Or maybe past, future and present exist simultaneously, and we’re putting together the pieces. In any case, that story style has a far less linear quality (though naturally things still ‘happen.’)

      Maybe that internal time lapse is what you sense in my inability to qualify the book as purely historical or purely contemporary. πŸ˜‰

      I like the ED quote. This new story is definitely at a slant!

      • Bahiyyih says:

        Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
        Success in Circuit lies
        Too bright for our infirm Delight
        The Truth’s superb surprise
        As Lightening to the Children eased
        With explanation kind
        The Truth must dazzle gradually
        Or every man be blind—


  5. Helen Lowe says:

    But I can’t help thinking that this approach, ie “turns round a central issue” can/could be just as applicable in epic, & that ultimately even a less structured approach to storytelling has to “get somewhere” in the end, even if ‘at slant.’ But then I remind myself that you are telling us your experience, not saying that it should be the same way for everyone!:)

    Wonderful to have that lovely delicious sense of working with the new though, isn’t it, and also exploring not just a new story but a new form of storytelling …

    • MaryV says:

      It’s not impossible – but the final result would be less ‘epic’, I think, and more reflective, poetic, or fairy tale-ish. Epic fantasy is very much about that onward adventure and getting from A to Z, though there may be twists a la Battlestar Gallactica during the adventure: ie, we’ve been from A to Z before, or the overall story is cyclic, or something at the end conditions something at the start… Does that make sense? Epic has a world-changing denouement and loves a linear timeline, with certain concessions to circular storytelling. Poetic or non-linear storytelling doesn’t care a fig about changing the world and loves cycles, enchantments (hundred year sleeps that are broken!) and a sense of continuity over aeons.

      A fantasy writer who uses that form of poetic storytelling beautifully is Peter Beagle, imho. (You use it too, in Thornspell.) A fantasy writer who avoids it completely and sticks to epic is David Eddings. πŸ™‚

      • Bahiyyih says:

        “Poetic or non-linear storytelling doesn’t care a fig about changing the world”

        But it does care about the change within. Here’s another slant, from ED:

        There’s a certain slant of light,
        On winter afternoons
        That oppresses, like the heft
        Of cathedral tunes.
        Heavenly hurt it gives us;
        We can find no scar,
        But internal difference
        Where the meanings, are.
        None may teach it anything,
        ‘T is the seal, despair,
        An imperial affliction
        Sent us of the air.
        When it comes, the landscape listens,
        Shadows hold their breath;
        When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
        On the look of death.

        • MaryV says:

          Yes, it sure does. Change the world without, says the epic. Change the world within, says the poet. You could argue they’re making similar points. πŸ™‚

    • MaryV says:

      …And then there are those who mash it up: Ursula Le Guin (the Earthsea saga is a marriage between poetic and epic), T.H.White (his Arthurian saga manages to retell the epic story while keeping a whimsical, fairy-tale tone.)

      • Helen Lowe says:

        I was going to argue this, but you’ve beaten me to it: that the best stories, epic or no, are about both internal and external change, possibly with one driving the other. I’m afraid I don’t accept that the delineation between epic and other forms of fiction is so cut-and-dried, black-and-white, as you appear to be suggesting above: whether I personally am capable of delivering that kind of story result is an entirely other question, of course!

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