Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

Show and Tell

Some people say “show don’t tell” but most fiction contains both showing and telling.

It’s really a question of how you impart information to the reader at any given time. Is it better to be descriptive and show the reader what is happening? Or is it better to be direct and tell the reader what is happening?

Depending on the circumstances, your story will call for different techniques at different times.

For example, sometimes it’s important to tell the reader directly:

War was coming.

But to keep it immersive, you would surround it with details:

War was coming. He could see it in the grim frowns of the soldiers at the gate, their weary eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale signs of the encroaching violence.

If the coming war is an important point, you would go on to add further immersive details that build evidence for the reader.

Children skulked indoors, peering out through windows and doors as the city streets filled with soldiers, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms, boys and old men drafted to man the walls while the real warriors fought hand-to-hand in the open field.

Even though that is somewhat immersive, it’s still a lot of information packed into one sentence. It’s still telling a lot more than it’s showing.

If we want to show more, we’d need to expand it more, and at this point you’d be thinking of the best way to convey the information immersively from whatever perspective you’re using, eg. I’d have to place my point-of-view character somewhere near these events in order to ‘show’ them more effectively through his eyes.

Tom frowned. From a distance they looked sound enough, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms as they stood at ease in the courtyard awaiting orders. But as he approached them Tom spotted the grey hair of old Mr Jones poking out from under his shiny black helm, and the pimply face of a boy scarcely older than Tom, his wide eyes glancing this way and that as if expecting the enemy to jump out at any moment.

Tom’s heart sank.

There were too many of them, faces old and young scattered throughout the garrison. Grandfathers and mere boys called to man the defences against an enemy they barely knew, let alone knew how to defeat.  Where were the soldiers? The real defenders?

As you can see, it’s possible to turn a few words into a few paragraphs if you so choose. The real question is whether you need to for the sake of the story. How much detail is too much? How much is too little? You want the story to be immersive without dragging into pointless details.

Even though that last excerpt shows more than the one before it, it also adds more telling. It tells additional details that didn’t exist before. This is why “show don’t tell” can be confusing, because they will almost always coexist and depending on the style of the text it simply won’t be possible or desirable to eradicate all telling.

Ultimately, what matters is how well the text reads, and how immersive it is. In my experience, excessive telling or insufficient showing suggests that the story has not been plotted or drafted enough. The plot is, in a sense, the ultimate tell. My suspicion is that when people tell too much in a draft, it’s because they haven’t first laid out those very direct details in a plot and instead they intersperse the narrative with character, setting or plot points.

While it’s still early days for me, so far my plot and my drafts have all moved in the direction of greater elaboration and showing. In plot form, the excerpt above might be as brief as “Tom realises that the defenders aren’t professional soldiers, and so he….”

This is enough to further the plot, but obviously not enough to interest or immerse the reader. Hence the first draft is an attempt to convert these plot points into immersive scenes, like story-boarding a screenplay.

That’s how it’s turned out for me, anyway. But you could argue that all these ideas are subordinate to the simple imperative of writing a readable story, using whatever works for you.

Fiction update – so, so tired.

One week ago I gave a brief update of my fiction efforts that showed my progress over the past forever, culminating in a few months of promising work and the first draft of a novel.

The second draft has passed much more quickly. In keeping with the format:

February 22nd 2016 – finished second draft.

30 hours of writing and 44,800 words.

That’s about 8,000 more than the previous draft. Apparently comparing two word documents and showing the percentage changed is just beyond Microsoft Office, but I can say that I made more than 2200 changes between first and second drafts, though that includes both minor corrections like deleting a misplaced comma, and major ones like inserting a whole new chapter.

Still, that’s 30 hours in one week as opposed to 85 hours in one month for the first draft. That’s 4.28 hours per day up from 2.83, a more than 1.5 times increase in productivity.

I think it comes down to having the main character’s story arc fully formed in the first draft. The second draft was largely a matter of filling in details that were too extraneous to include in the first draft, and slowing down the pacing of the text.

I think for the first draft I was just in a hurry to complete the main character’s story, and the feedback I’ve had so far suggests that my next draft will need to include even more non-essential elements to give the story greater breadth and breathing space.

But that will have to wait. I’m going to take the ubiquitous advice to now put it aside for a while and return to it with fresh eyes a little down the track.

 

Fiction update: my writing timeline

So, in 2007-08 I wrote a novel.

We don’t talk about the novel.

In 2010 I had my first article published, and in the six years since have had 101 articles published online, as well as some in hardcopy through my old job in bioethics, where I really got my start in writing.

In December 2012 I revisited fiction, reviewed my old work and started thinking about where I went wrong.

I don’t remember the details, but let’s guess that in early 2014 I started seriously trying to work out how to write fiction. That brings us up to the end of 2015 where I finally found an approach that has worked for me.

Here’s the detailed timeline, derived the various documents I’ve been working on:

November 21st 2015 – started plot

21 hours of writing and 7,000 words

December 21st 2015 – started first draft.

85 hours of writing and 36,000 words

February 18th 2016 – finished first draft.

Eviscerating critique by wife

February 21st 2016 – started second draft.

Still a huge amount of work to do!

It’s been surprisingly difficult, but I have to say that it completely overshadows my nonfiction work in terms of the creative process and personal impact.

I even wrote on this blog some time ago, when I was struggling with fiction, that nonfiction seemed superior because it dealt entirely with reality.

But now it feels like nonfiction has lost its appeal. Whatever I might write at present would feel ineffectual and ultimately pointless. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but I’m glad to have finally discovered the real power of fiction.

More on this later.

 

Fiction update

So, I’ve found it hard to write lately – you may have noticed. Part of the problem is that I’ve been writing so much. I’ve finally discovered a meaningful, motivating, and sustainable approach to writing fiction.

I haven’t wanted to mention it in case talking about it undermined my motivation. But I’m nearly 28,000 words into the first draft, and more importantly, I have a plot!

I’m aiming for 40,000 which should qualify it as a short novel. It’s in the children’s fantasy genre, and I hope to have the first draft finished in the coming month.

I wrote here some time ago of my struggles with fiction. I’ve found non-fiction comparatively easy, but fiction challenged me. I wrote a children’s novel about eight years ago, but there was something fundamentally wrong with it, and I’d since struggled to find the inspiration to have another try at it.

Having found an approach that inspires me, it seems I may have lost my inspiration for non-fiction writing. I think it has something to do with the sense of efficacy.

In the past, fiction seemed nice but pointless. Non-fiction was more meaningful because it dealt with real issues in the real world. But now I see that fiction is, or can be, more meaningful because it frees real issues from real-world constraints. It lets us focus on an issue or a theme in a way that would be a distortion of the real world, but which makes sense in the creative domain.

I touched on this in previous posts on the limits of non-fiction, and the paradox of fiction. So I had some sense of what the answer must be, but had not yet truly arrived at it.Unfortunately, now that I’ve arrived at it, non-fiction seems uninteresting and ineffectual by comparison. It isn’t, of course, but I’ve got a word count to meet over in my other world, so further reflection will have to wait.

Metaphysics, creativity, and the tyranny of conventions

Does metaphysics undermine creativity?

I’ve noticed that I can easily get engrossed in a novel which, if I had to write it, would bore me to tears. Even LotR, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about hobbits, elves, magic rings etc., with the degree of interest required to motivate actual writing.

Nonetheless I gave fiction another go last night, and decided to focus on a positive motive – a kind of “write something that interests or excites you”. Translating this into: what is something that I would find truly awe-some?

What came to mind was the idea of contingency/emptiness, the ontological shallowness of creation. Ok cool, I’ll just write a story about that…

In principle, it’s hard or perhaps impossible to write about things we don’t care about or think important. On the level of metaphysics, the significance of the ontological gap between necessity and contingency kinda dampens down the significance of everything on the ‘contingent’ side. It’s just hard to get excited about imaginary objects when you know we are all already, in a sense, imaginary objects.

So what I tried instead was to put contingency into a story, by having a character who finds an object that allows him to pass “backstage” so to speak, and enters a kind of happy void he can sit in for as long as he likes.  This is appealing in a “ring of invisibility” kind of way because it feeds my melancholic desire to be able to just disappear and relax whenever I want to. It offers a sense of ideal freedom, but it also combines it with the ontological significance of contingency/emptiness.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at face value I can say “yeah that would be pretty cool”.

Forget about conventions, for now.

Last night I also spent some time thinking about the stylistic obstacles to writing fiction. Basically, whenever I try to write down an idea in narrative form, my brain kicks into “narrative fiction 101” mode and tries to force me to follow what I assume is a fairly basic and cliche stylistic model. Yet I know from writing non-fiction that the supposed conventions of the genre fill me with unspeakable dismay and that the quickest way to kill my motivation is to approach it with a formulaic mindset.

The vague and semi-conscious conventions of fiction turn writing into a clumsy, awkward chore.  So why bother with them? In my non-fiction I have no trouble side-stepping these “rules”. I’ve learned to follow the winding path of my inspiration wherever it leads. Why not do the same with fiction, and just write the parts I’m inspired to write, even if it seems incomplete along the way?

Besides, I’ve often found in non-fiction that after producing fifteen hundred words of inspired ideas and enthused analysis, it’s easy to tack on a brief introduction or explanatory notes to help the unfamiliar reader find his or her bearings. But if I had to start with the introduction or explanation, I would never start at all.

If you’re the kind of writer who feels his way along, then you have to start with the parts that feel interesting, exciting, or awe-some, and leave the drudgery to later – often much later when you know what is really going on.

I’m hoping this approach will also work for fiction if I combine it with the awe-some element described above – homing in on truly motivating ideas while side-stepping the major sources of friction and drudgery.

The paradox of fiction

The struggle to write (good) fiction continues, and it occurred to me today that there is a paradox inherent in the desire to create a world, or characters, or situations that are on the one hand fictional, and on the other hand deeply meaningful and therefore worth writing.

What is paradoxical about profoundly meaningful fiction? For me, all meaning must ultimately be real meaning; yet fiction is by definition unreal. We’ve discussed already how the unreality and freedom of fiction can make it more potent than non-fiction; but now that potency itself raises the paradox. If I can create a supremely potent and meaningful fiction, wouldn’t that fiction either approximate or take the place of my own real ideals and perspective of reality?

If you were going to build yourself a house, you would want it to be the ideal house because it will take a lot of effort to build and you’re going to be living in it for a very long time.  A novel also takes a lot of effort and time to construct, but you don’t have to live in it when it’s done. In fact you live in it until it is done.  Nonetheless, because of the effort involved you want it to be as good as it possibly can. You want it to meet your ideals.

The problem then is that to meet my ideals the fiction must be so meaningful that it ceases to be ‘fiction’ and instead becomes somehow a reality.  This is not so much an expected outcome as a pressure and it explains some of the difficulties I’ve been having: I feel pressed to make my fiction so meaningful that all seemingly conventional fictional efforts immediately fall short and are discarded. I can’t invent a character unless he is the most appropriate and meaningful character – but what if that character ends up being me?  I can’t invent a goal unless it is the most meaningful and significant goal – but such a goal must transcend the boundaries of fiction.

Tolkien may have avoided this problem by regarding his efforts as the creation of a myth for his people. In other words, all his work on Middle-Earth could be justified under the auspices of mythology – a context that lent it gravitas and significance beyond mere fiction.  In this sense, his work broke the boundary between fiction and reality. Myth is, after all, neither truly fiction nor fact but sits in its own strange landscape where history and ideas can coexist. Tolkien’s exorbitant efforts make sense because the meaning he created was not just for himself nor for the sake of writing fiction but for a whole people, for posterity; nor simply for entertainment but for all the vital significance of mythology.*

None of this is to imply that all the good fiction out there is somehow insignificant or inferior. This is a personal creative challenge, not a generic critique, and it likely strikes only a small subset of those who turn their hand to fiction.

How I see the paradox unfolding is that my continued efforts to write fiction must somehow satisfy my desire for it to be supremely meaningful – a work of fiction that transcends the banality of everyday life. If it succeeds in this, it will then somehow encapsulate the meaning in this life also. In other words, it will have to be more than fiction. It will have to be real, and that is both a frightening and an exhilarating prospect.

 

*People often describe Tolkien as having created his own world, but the implicit solipsism doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Tolkien was reshaping the world, or at least his corner of it, enriching his world through the domain of myth. Perhaps that is why Tolkien didn’t like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: as allegories, analogies, or on the level of conceit, their significance cannot translate into the real world in the same way that the mythology of Middle-Earth can. Many authors create a few words of a foreign language for the sake of their stories; Tolkien still stands out for having created actual, workable languages. His fictional languages became real things, just as his stories became real as myth.

The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.

 

 

The conflicted storyteller

For years I’ve struggled on and off to write fiction.

I once wrote a novel, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good, and I needed it to be so much better if I was to push it, believe in it, take it as far as it could go.

After a few years of consideration and doing other things – mostly discussing fiction with like-minded friends – I’m well aware of some of the faults in my past efforts. But like everything I do, there has to be a deeper reason, a cause or problem that prevents me from achieving what I want to achieve.  I must be missing something profound.

I still haven’t found the answer – I’ve found a dozen answers, and collectively they help, but it’s not enough to break through the malaise I feel when I try to write fiction.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really want to write fiction….

“Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”

There is no solution because there isn’t any problem

– Marcel Duchamp

That is, my motivation is complex. If I wanted to write fiction, I would be writing it. When I think about writing fiction, in fact I feel terrible about it. I think fiction is pointless, indirect, a waste of time, empty escapism. No wonder I don’t want to write it.

Yet I can’t let it go.

So now I think the truth is more like this: I want to write something, but I don’t know what it is. It is different from my current work, writing non-fiction articles. But the moment I look at the alternative of ‘fiction’ in its various guises, I feel that it is not that either. The reality is that I do not know how to write fiction yet, and all I have in mind to guide me are a dull set of limited conventions. I can easily write non-fiction because I know the essential parameter of seeking to understand and to solve a problem.  But when it comes to fiction I don’t know the essence, only the conventions and accidental characteristics.

So what are the essential parameters of fiction?

It turns out that ‘fiction’ is not a very useful word. It simply means something ‘imagined’ or ‘shaped, formed, made’.

‘Story’ is a better word. I do want to write a story, and it turns out that ‘story’ comes from ‘history’: a “relation of incidents”, not distinguished from the modern use of the term ‘history’.

So if I want to write a fictitious story, it means I wish to relate a series of incidents that did not happen. But why would I do this? What is the point or purpose, such that I could make it a good story, rather than a bad one?

Perhaps the essence of a fictitious story is not so different to the essence of an actual history? Indeed, if we go back further, from the Latin historia to the Greek historia, we find that the meaning changes from “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” to “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,”, which is in turn derived from histor “wise man, judge,”.

So is a history an account of the inquiries of a wise man?  But surely the real purpose of stories these days is merely to entertain?  And surely the kind of work that goes into creating modern fiction has little at all to do with wisdom and inquiry? Isn’t imagination and creativity the very opposite of inquiry?

This is, for me, the crux of the problem. Non-fiction is inquiry. My articles and even my private writing is aimed at inquiry, understanding, illumination. But my attempts at fiction appear to travel another direction entirely, toward imagination, unbounded elaboration, essentially frivolous fantasy.  And if I look at any one of the stories I’ve enjoyed in my life, can I truly claim to have learned anything from them? Have I gained anything more than entertainment and escapism? Is my desire to write fiction in fact a desire to participate in escapist entertainment more fully?

What do we gain from reading fictitious histories?