Plotting and Outlines

The other day, I and another writer were talking shop about how to write novel-length fiction, and the subject of outlines and plotting came up. I use outlines in my writing, but I realized it would take me some time to figure out how to explain what I do and why. Since the subject basically demanded writing a blog post anyway, I decided to go ahead and put my thoughts on my blog.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

Plotters are writers who figure out the plot first, then write. Pantsers are those who write “by the seat of their pants,” discovering the plot as they write it. Both methods work, but most writers are one or the other, not both.

I am a plotter. While I do often discover things about my story by watching what happens as I type, I’m basically a non-linear thinker, meaning that the end of the story is just as likely to pop into my head first as the beginning. Thinking about a story is, for me, less like going on a road trip and more like looking at a map.

I don’t start at the beginning and move forward, creatively speaking, I start with a vague map and work to make it more precise. That vague map is the outline. The precise version is the written-out story.

The reason I bring up this distinction is that I rely on plot outlines to do certain things for me as a writer, things I could not write novel-length fiction without. But since pantsers obviously either do write without these things or have some other way to get them, I don’t mean to imply that you need a plot outline. If you’re a pantser, you probably don’t–but if you are a pantser, you’ll probably have to turn to someone else for advice, because I only know what works for me.

Now, then.

What Are Outlines Good For?

Not all stories need outlines, or at least, I have not needed to write outlines for all my stories. For short stories (and for short essays, such as this blog post), I still have a basic idea of what I want to do in my head, but the piece is short enough and simple enough that I can keep it in my head just fine and don’t need to write the plan down. I might use an outline to discuss a project with a collaborator or a client, but if I’m working alone I just write.

But when a story starts getting long and complex, I can’t hold it in my head anymore. I need to write my plan down so I don’t forget it, and so that I can literally get a good look at it.

It’s like that map I mentioned. If the area I’m dealing with is big enough that I can’t see both the big picture and the street details at the same time, I need a zoomed-out version of the map I can refer to so I can remember where the streets I’m looking at actually are.

There are several types of outlines–by which I don’t mean the different outline formats you may have learned in high school English class, I mean several different jobs an outline can do, both in writing and in editing. The one I want to focus on here is the plot outline.

There are two interrelated reasons to write a plot outline: to make sure the plot makes sense; and to help you deal with issues of pacing, tension, and narrative structure.

Making the Plot Make Sense

Imagine that you are L. Frank Baum, writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You know you want Dorothy to meet three traveling companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. But does she meet them all at once? If not, whom does she meet first? And does she meet them in quick succession, or do you want to put a couple of scenes in between each meeting? By writing a plot outline, you can figure this stuff out, trying a couple of options without having to rewrite the whole book four times.

And once you have your outline written, you can refer back to it so you don’t, for example, leave the Scarecrow out of the Tin Woodsman’s first scene by mistake. The outline tells you that Dorothy meets the Scarecrow first, therefor he is there when she meets the Tin Woodsman.

Pacing, Tension, and Narrative Structure (Oh My!)

Different parts of the story have different jobs to do. The first few scenes must hook the reader and establish the basic circumstances of the story–for example, if this is a fantasy full of magic, you’d better let us know quickly, or we’re going to get confused. Then you’ve got to introduce the main conflict and leading us up to the climax…. Writing an outline lets you figure out how your scenes fit within this narrative structure and at what points you have to shift gears because you’re in a different part of the plot arc, now.

You can use the outlining process to look for, and then fix, holes in your plot–for example, in your mind, does the story jump from the introductory scenes right to the climax, with only a vague muddle in the middle? Outlining makes you notice the vague muddle and tells you it’s time to fill in that space with something.

You can also use the outline to help you stay within the rough size range–you can write the same story idea in ten pages, or a hundred pages, or a thousand pages, depending on how much detail you go into and whether you use any subplots and so forth, so how do you know which page count you’re on track to make? Ok, being off by an order of magnitude seems unlikely, but especially if you’re new at this, you could easily set off with a pacing and style at odds with your projected length. To avoid that, use a plot outline to figure out how much “stuff” you really want to put in this story. Simple plots make short stories, while complex ones need to be long.

How to Use a Plot Outline

I could tell you what to do, but instead I’m going to tell you what I’ve done. Seems a bit more honest that way, and you can adapt my experience to your situation (or not) as you see fit. I should point out that there are places where I could have used outlining more carefully when writing and didn’t, and ended up having to outline more during editing. We are all works in progress, and most of us learn most things the hard way.

I did the initial work on my published novel, To Give a Rose, so long ago that I don’t remember why I did most of what I did. I can tell you that the project went through several different phases (the original idea bears little resemblance to the book I actually wrote), and that when I developed the basic structure that I eventually used, I did write it down as a plot outline.

Let me tell you about one of my current works in progress in more detail.

Ecological Memory began with the idea of writing a kind of teacher story, along the lines of Way of the Peaceful Warrior or The Teachings of Don Juan, except that the teacher would be an ecologist, and his teachings would be scientific rather than explicitly spiritual. That science can have an implicitly spiritual dimension was to be part of the point.

Yes, the teacher figure was to be male, for the simple reason that the people who fill that role for me happen to be. I could have changed the character’s sex simply to buck stereotype, and I do that sort of thing on some projects, but happened not to for this character.

Anyway, I wrote the first page or two, establishing the characters, their world, and how they interact, and then over the course of about two or three days, the general elements of the plot downloaded themselves into my brain; the student character remembers nothing from her early childhood except a few flashbacks of playing in certain forests, and so the ecologist helps her figure out where her childhood home was, based on her descriptions of those forests–these flashbacks would occur several times throughout the story, each time revealing more clues to the puzzle.

As I developed the story further, I realized that the teacher could not and should not be an enlightened guru figure. In fact, he has his own issues that drive a second plot that is intertwined with the first. But that complication evolved gradually, and I was only dimly aware of it when I wrote the first outline.

Anyway, once I figured out where the student character was from, I realized five clues would be enough for the ecologist to solve the puzzle. So, I outlined five chapters, each of which contained three elements: a clue to the whereabouts of the student’s home; a passage in which the teacher told part of his own backstory; and the introduction of a new thematic material.

There were problems.

For example, when I was writing that first page, I noticed that the student sounded like a child. I decided that was just a quirk of their relationship, that she played little-girl with him sometimes, but I wanted to make cleat she wasn’t a child and didn’t act like one usually, so I did the first thing I could think of to make her seem like a bad-ass–I gave her a gun. Except, having introduced a gun, I knew I needed to have it go off at some point, so I had to find some place in the outline where I could put in some gun play.

So, in the course of solving these problems, I created other problems, all of which I used the outline process to resolve eventually.

The actual writing was rather like adding flesh to preexisting bones. I added more ideas, divided several chapters in half because they were too long, and let go of the neat five-sets-of-three structure I’d planned out. With a help of a professional editor (there are many kinds of editor; this was a collaborative or developmental editor), I then tightened up the pacing, added even more scenes, and clarified my ideas substantially–a process that involved another type of outlining, which I hope to discuss in a later post.

Plotter or Pantser?

I am a plotter, yes. But having plotted, I then pants. Then plot again, then pants some more. The plot outline is not written in stone and can change as I get new ideas for the story, as when I nearly doubled the number of chapters, or when new ideas I had while writing radically altered some of the themes and structures of the story. My fiction grows organically and intuitively, just as I imagine the writing of pantsers must. The main difference, as I said, is that my creative process moves from vague understanding to detailed story, instead of from beginning to end.

And outlines are the tool I use to zoom out, to look at the whole picture at once, so I don’t get lost or confused or overwhelmed as I write.

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How to Get Published

First, a proviso.

I AM a published author, but I am not an expert on this subject. I have published one book so far, plus several of my essays, one short story, and two poems have seen the light of the printed page. I also keep several blogs, including this one. I work as a free-lance writer and editor, so most of my work is in that context, where trying to get published isn’t really the issue (free-lancing means finding other people to hire you as an independent contractor to write whatever they want written–usually web content).

However, one of the main things I do as a writer is collect information and organize it for readers. Whether the topic is biodegradable plastics or skinny jeans, I can gather the information and present it to you clearly.

Someone recently asked, in a Facebook writer’s group, “How do I get published?” and I decided to answer the question. So, what follows is a condensation of what I have read and heard from various sources over the years, salted with my own experience as a writer. Here we go.

What Do You Want to Write?

How to get published depends largely on what you want to write. There are a couple of broad categories:

  • Short fiction or short non-fiction
  • Book-length fiction
  • Book-length non-fiction
  • Free-lancing
  • Blogs

There are other categories—journalism, screenplays, music lyrics, and academic or scholarly work, for example—that have very different rules. I’m going to skip them here, but if you’re interested in any of them, know that you’ll have to start asking questions all over again, because this does not apply to that.

Short Fiction or Short Non-Fiction

We’re mostly talking magazine content, here, although short work can be anthologized (published in a book with other short pieces). Traditionally, at least, writing for periodicals was the way to get into professional writing, though the rise of the internet and print-on-demand may be changing that, I am not certain. I am aware that most magazines no longer publish short fiction, a real shame, since the short story is one of my favorite forms to read, and some of my favorite authors (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ernest Hemingway) did some of their best work writing short fiction for magazines in order to pay the rent. You can’t pay the rent that way, anymore, a loss for readers.

But some short fiction is still published, and there are a lot of venues for essays and articles. The key is to figure out where you want to get published BEFORE you write the piece, though, because every periodical has its own requirements as far as length, subject, and style, and it is much easier to adjust your writing to a magazine then to find a magazine that happens to want what you already wrote.

Begin the process by finding a magazine that includes material similar in subject and style to what you want to do. Look up its “submission guidelines,” which will usually be on their website. If not, the editor’s contact information will be in the magazine and on its website, and you can ask. Some periodicals are mostly or entirely staff-written, meaning you are out of luck unless you can get a job there, but many welcome outside submissions. Check to see if the deal they’re offering is a good one, as far as what rights they buy and how much they pay (if you’re not sure what that means yet, do some research, it’s very important). If it looks good to you, get a stylesheet (if it’s not on the website, ask for one).

A stylesheet lists rules for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage on matters where these can vary. For example, should you use Oxford commas? Should you use a space before and after a dash, or not? Is slang or cursing ok? Check the stylesheet. Submission guidelines tell you how to format your piece and how to send the document and to whom (all of this is done online these days. You won’t need a self-addressed stamped envelope). Follow all of these rules to the letter. Also, read several issues of the magazine, both so you know what they publish and because it shows respect to the editors to be familiar with their magazine. Research how to write a good cover letter. Write your piece. Hope.

Book-length Work

Books are probably what most people have in mind when they decide they want to be writers. Books also have the advantage of more cultural staying power—when writers remain famous after their deaths, it is disproportionately as book authors, even if the books in question are collections of short stories or essays originally published in magazines.

Books also offer special challenges to publication in that they are expensive to produce and must be marketed on their own merit. A magazine article has a ready-made audience of regular readers, and new readers might be attracted by a well-known featured author, and then read you because they already have the magazine. With a book, though, it’s just you, and you’re starting from scratch. Chances are therefore excellent that the book will flop and that they whole thing will be a giant waste of somebody’s money. The publication world will make a lot more sense if you keep track of whose money is at risk in any given situation.

(Note; while the odds are against your success, the people who do succeed are those who write and try to publish, anyway. Neither J.K. Rowling nor Stephen King had any better reason than you do to believe they’d make it, and look at them now. Somebody is going to beat the odds, and an absolute job requirement is to remain convinced that it will be you)

If you take the financial risk, if you pay for the publication process, then you are self-published, even if you hired someone else to format and print and so forth, and even if the “someone else” calls themselves a publisher and puts their name on your book. At the end of the process, you’ll have a box of books and how to sell them is your problem. Marketing a book is a whole separate question. But at least if you self-publish, all the proceeds from the sales you make are yours.

Traditional publishing means someone else pays for the publishing process and then takes a cut from each sale. You get whatever money is left over. Publishers will not take on a book they don’t believe will sell, so if you can’t get someone to believe in you, you’ll be out of luck. Getting an agent to represent your book to prospective publishers is a huge help, but in that case you must convince an agent to believe in you. The advantage to this system is that, in theory, once you get a publisher, they’ll take care of marketing for you. It’s in their best interests to give your book its best chance of success.

Unfortunately, in practice, cheap, print-on-demand technology has shifted the balance of power. The good news is that self-publishers no longer have to invest in a big print run, so your risk is much lower, your entrance price much smaller. The bad news is that traditional publishers can now afford to make marketing your problem, and many do. So not only must you jump through hoops to get accepted for publication and share your profits, but you also have to figure out how to market your book on your own (or nearly on your own–there is a bit of a gradient here). This is a VERY bad system for writers–and readers–and I really hope that we as a culture come up with something else, soon.

In any case, traditional publishing still has some advantages, and if you want to do it you can do more research on the specifics of how to pick a good publisher (or agent) to pitch to, and how to make your pitch. Be aware that while the process for fiction begins after the book is finished (though the publisher may ask for a few rewrites), non-fiction books are typically accepted for publication based on only an outline and the first few chapters.

The kind of publication to avoid is a vanity press. These are scams. Some people will tell you that a vanity press is one where you pay publication costs. That’s not true, for although a vanity press may well have you pay up front, so will a reputable self-publishing service. Also, there are vanity presses that do pay up-front costs, but then sell copies mostly to authors, not to readers, and at retail (not wholesale) prices. The whole idea is you are paying for the ego boost of seeing you name in print.

Because no one ever admits to being a vanity press, they can be hard to spot, and the line between vanity presses and self-publishing services can be thin (the line between traditional and self-publishing is growing thin, too, as self-publishing services offer more services and publishers offer fewer). The bottom line is going to be whether the financial and legal deal is fair–can you make money? The hallmark of a vanity press is that you will get nothing out of it except your vanity.

Free-lancing

Free-lancing means you write (or edit, or both) for hire. You are self-employed, and will likely have multiple clients to juggle at once. Much of your work will be published either anonymously or under other people’s names, and much of it will be embarrassing. Think of all the text you encounter every day, from advertising copy to clickbait—all of it was written by somebody, probably a free-lancer, probably an underpaid free-lancer. Just think, that underpaid free-lancer could be you!

Me, I like free-lancing. I always wanted to be a free-lancer, as well as a novelist. It pays the bills, and there is nothing like it for forcing you to develop your craft as a professional. You can’t have writers’ block. You can’t limit yourself to just one topic or one style. You have to communicate well, often with people who communicate badly (that’s why they hired you—so you can communicate for them). You need a thick skin, a true service ethic, a commitment to professionalism, and if you want to work in your pajamas, you can go right ahead.

And, honestly, most of my clients are awesome. I end up writing about things I never would have gotten involved with otherwise (sports, life insurance, skinny jeans, brake pads) and I learn a lot. And I get to be involved with a lot of awesome projects, knowing that whether I get a byline or not (byline = a line that says who the work is by), I know thousands, maybe millions, of people see my work.

Getting published isn’t the issue for free-lancers—finding clients is. A simple way to start is to sign up for a service like Upwork, which help you find work in exchange for a cut of your pay. Talk to other free-lancers about the details of the business and how to find work independently.

Blogs

Blogs vary a lot. Essentially, any online periodical is a blog, from well-funded, professional-quality titles that may be associated with large organizations (like PBS or The Weather Channel), to personal musings or rants written by people with no commitment to craft. ALL are blogs.

(Pet peeve; some people call a blog post “a blog.” Please don’t do that. It’s a post or an article. The blog is the entire periodical)

Blogs can be unpaid labors of love. They can also be monetized, usually by running ads or asking for donations. Some blogs are part of larger projects—for example, a blog might be part of a company’s marketing strategy—in which case the owner may pay a staffer or free-lancer to write the blog. Some blogs have a single author, others are written by teams. Some accept submissions, like magazines.

It’s easy to start your own blog by using a free service like WordPress or Blogger. And you can blog about anything—many are about the author’s personal life, but you can use a blog to conduct real journalism, provide serious commentary, offer information and advice, or even for fiction. One of my blogs is a serialized novel.

Whether anyone reads your blog is another question. The good news is you don’t need anyone’s permission to blog, you can just start. The bad news is you might well become the tree that falls in the forest—if no one reads you, are you really writing? There are various ways to publicize blogs, depending on how much time you want to put into it and how much you care about getting readers. Some people don’t care. They’re more or less writing for themselves, or as a form of practice or play, and that’s ok.

Just remember people CAN read your blog, so don’t write anything you don’t want the world to see. After all, you are published now.

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Writing About Time

In fiction, both written and on-screen, there are certain “uninvented inventions” whose properties transcend any one story. We know how these things work, how they operate, and when they appear in a new story we understand their import just as well as we understand anything familiar from the real world.

Faster-than-light travel, for example. Virtually all fiction that deals with interstellar distances employs some method of getting around the problem of relativity for both travel and communication. Usually, either the method involves shifting to some alternate form of reality where the rules are different (subspace in Star Trek, hyperspace in Star Wars), or using a wormhole or some equivalent artificial shortcut to render distances moot (2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequels, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle). In reality, it’s far from clear whether any such thing is even remotely possible, but in fiction we’re used to it. We buy it, emotionally speaking.

I once attended a talk by a philosophy student who referred to these things as “unfilled categories,” or perhaps a similar phrase I now forget…she included not only technology but also biological and spiritual phenomena that exist in the popular mind, but not otherwise, pointing out that some of these categories have since been filled (space ships and robots, for example). She argued that the category “undead” has now been filled by…wait for it…frozen sperm. Human sperm can’t live more than 48 hours, and dead sperm can’t impregnate a woman. Since frozen sperm can be thawed and used years after collection, it violates both the “live” and “dead” categories and is therefore undead. The talk was very entertaining, but logically, quite sound.

Uninvented inventions, or unfilled categories, can be used to explore possibilities. As I’ve discussed before, over a century of fiction dealing with the possibility of artificial life has prepared us to ask some very important questions about the genetic engineering technology we now have. Writers can also use uninvented inventions to avoid having to deal with certain inconvenient truths, such as the speed-of-light barrier. Finally, there are simple flights of fancy—like time travel.

We all know how time travel in fiction works.

Young Marty McFly, for example, goes back in time and meets his parents as teenagers. Unfortunately, his mother-to-be ends up more interested in him than in his father-to-be, so he must play matchmaker for his parents or disappear, never having been born. He is successful, and returns to his own time, pleased to discover that his intervention gave his father the necessary confidence to become a much cooler dad. Everyone lives happily ever after (after the sequels). Right?

Right, but if Marty McFly had failed in his matchmaking, and ceased to exist, then how could he have interrupted his parents’ courtship? He wouldn’t exist! Logically, it should be impossible to go back in time and change history in such a way as to prevent the time travel in the first place. For the same reason, all plots that involve someone going back in time to solve a problem shouldn’t work, because once the problem is solved, the motivation for time travel disappears. There are other severe rational inconsistencies. And yet we are all so familiar with the conventions of fictional time travel that these plots work emotionally.

Look, I’m not trying to say that everybody is doing time travel wrong. Fictional conventions have their own integrity, and many of these stories are a lot of fun. Why do children returning from Narnia revert to their old physical age but retain their memories of their years in the otherworld? Because magic, that’s why. As long as fiction is sufficiently believable to permit willing suspension of disbelief, that’s good enough.

And yet if you really want a story about what time travel is like, the current body of stories won’t provide.

The central problem with typical time travel stories is revealed when you imagine what the story looks like from the perspective of an objective observer in a normal time sequence, not the time-traveling protagonist. Take Marty McFly, again. He and the DeLorean appear suddenly in a farm field out of nowhere, thus violating the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Where did they come from? The future? But that’s not a “where.” How and why does traveling in time mean showing up in a place where your existence cannot be accounted for by the laws of physics?

When time traveling, shouldn’t you show up in a place where you actually were at the time you are going to? Shouldn’t going back in time look like rewinding to an earlier part of the movie? An earlier page of the book? Shouldn’t time travel simply be a form of perfect memory?

The reason I bring all this up is that, as delightful as the typical time travel narratives are, it would be nice to see what a good writer could do with a clean slate and a rigorously logical approach. What stories might be possible with time travel framed as a shift in perspective, not quasi-physical movement?

This is the central difference between science fiction as it is typically practiced, in which the story comes first and realistic speculation may be compromised as needed for the good of the story, and science-based fiction, which is what I write. In the latter, an adherence to realism itself generates the story.

The result is not necessarily without wonder and whimsy. Remember that as flexible and powerful as imagination is, fantasy is always limited by the imaginer. Reality is where we can go to be surprised.

Realistic time travel has been done in fiction, by the way. Read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Lost Stories, Part IV

I am, little by little, telling the stories of the various novel ideas I’ve had along the way but did not pursue. Could I go back and finish them? Maybe, in at least some cases, but the issue is I don’t really want to. It’s not that I gave up, it’s that these projects never acquired the necessary vitality to come to term. And yet, each of them helped develop some aspect of my style or my process, or some theme or maybe a character that is part of my creative life, still.

These stories are part of my story.

I had been going in chronological order, but the last one I described dates from my late teens (my Star Trek novel-that-wasn’t), and there is another from my early adolescence I’ve skipped over. Here it is.

The Cat Story

This one never even had a working title, not that I can remember, anyway. It barely even had a plot. And yet there was a while when I was developing it alongside the unrelated Central American novel, and I was fairly sure both would be completed and published someday. Perhaps that’s what makes some of these memories so poignant–I had such high hopes. I was twelve.

The basic idea for the cat story was that ordinary house cats turn out to be a highly organized and hyper-intelligent species, and that at some point in the near future they simply decide to take humanity in hand. They decide, in essence, that humans have botched things up pretty badly and can no longer be allowed to run things.

So, the cats completely re-organize the United States (I don’t remember if the coup was worldwide or only in the US), and fix all our political economic, and environmental problems for us. Everything fixed, we’re allowed to regain our autonomy, presumably chastened.

I had a few scenes planed out involving the cats’ initial revelation of their abilities and intentions, as well as their visit to my my school: the Head Cat was touring various institutions to see which ones would be allowed to remain and which would be closed down or altered. He traveled in a car driven by an ape, who also held a red velvet pillow with gold tassels for the Head Cat to sit on when he wanted to talk to humans so that he could converse at eye-level with us. My teachers were nervous, but they eventually made the grade.

But that was about it.

I don’t know why I didn’t write in that humans would protest (of course, we would) or fight back. I don’t know why I didn’t give the cats some kind of force or method of coercion. Instead I had them more less announce “we’re in charge, now,” and humanity just said “ok.”

Probably, I just wasn’t interested in plot or character development or human reactions. I was interested in an alternate version of the United States. The cats, and the idea of the novel itself, were simply an excuse to day-dream about a better way to run my own country. I spent a great deal of time and energy figuring out all the changes the cats were going to make. I saw my book as a way to introduce my ideas to the world, and perhaps someone would act on them.

What were these ideas? I remember only two.

  1. There would be a lot more protected green space. To that end, there would be buffer zones several miles wide created along all state boundaries from which all traces of civilization, except maybe a few highways and train lines, would be removed. There would also be habitat corridors created to connect all parks and wildlife preserves to the buffer zones and to each other.
  2. There would be a second type of political subdivision of the country; in addition to the states, there would be communities, and each community would have its own citizens and its own laws, but not its own land. In essence, it was an optional tribal system, where you could join a separatist group, opt out of some (not all) of the American legal system, and opt into a separate system.

I remember having a bit of an argument over that second one. I was explaining the whole system to my mother’s boyfriend, and as an example of a possible separatist community, I suggested Nazis. He was not amused. I had no idea how to extricate myself, and I let the subject drop. But, really, I didn’t mean to imply support for racists and such–I was trying to choose a deliberately extreme example, to say even Nazis would be free to do what they want to other Nazis. That was the key. The separatist laws would only apply to group members, and you could leave a group any time you wanted, for whatever reason. The Nazis would be harmless, because no Jews (or Gypsies, or gay people, etc.) would opt to join the Nazi group.

I don’t remember why or when I let the project drop, or even how long I worked on it. I do know that by the time I entered boarding school, at age 15, I had all but forgotten about it. Only recently did I begin thinking about the project again–and realize that the ideas of the cat story have never really left me.

Where Did the Cat Story Come From?

The cat story sounds juvenile, in no small part because I was myself juvenile at the time, but it grew out of my conviction that there is a better way to run this country and my doubt that we will do the right thing voluntarily. I still hold that conviction and that doubt, and I still hope that fiction can prompt public conversation–and maybe action–in spite of that doubt.

My thought that the US could be different than it actually is came from a school assignment, one of the best classroom activities I’ve ever heard of. We had been studying American History and so we, as a group, started to rewrite the US Constitution. We pretended that our class was the original constitutional convention, and we debated, discussed, and voted on many of the questions that the real Constitution covers. Who counts as a citizen? Who gets to vote? Who can hold which office and for how long?

We never finished the project–I think the teachers ended it because it was taking too long, and the point had already been made; the way our country runs is not written in stone. It could have been different than it is, and it is not out of line for any American to think about ways it might be better.

I thought and thought…and the cat story was one early result.

Where Did the Cat Story Go?

I have not stopped thinking about how else things might be run. In fact, the book I’m writing now began as a variation of the same daydream, where an outside event pushes humans to make some major changes we would not otherwise accept. The only difference is that this time the outside force is a killer pandemic, rather than a coup by hyper-intelligent house cats.

This time the daydream remained a daydream. I did not pretend that a scenario could be a novel if it lacked a plot. But then one day a plot and some characters bloomed in the world the daydream had created, and I started writing. The new book is not a vehicle to talk about political fantasy, and in fact very little of the fantasy made it into the story. That post-pandemic America will one day have a tricameral legislature–or a new and improved (Nazi-free) version of my optional tribal structure–is irrelevant to the plot and does not appear in the book.

But daydreaming about a better Constitution remains a preoccupation of mine. It has been a fertile daydream, and maybe someday it will help, somehow.

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“That’s Our Word, Now”

Recently, Bill Maher used “the N-word” publicly (to refer to himself, jokingly), subsequently issued an apology, and was later “schooled” on the subject, on air, by Ice Cube.

“School” is the verb used by the Daily Beast in the article I’ve linked to, and it is a good word, carrying, as it does, not only connotations of criticism and dominance, but also the idea of education. Ice Cube not only told Maher that he was wrong, he explained why Maher was wrong, and he did it in a very caring and friendly way.

Among other things he said, “that’s our word, now, and you can’t have it back.”

Now, I could go on at some length about bad words and their use–and I may, in another post. I’ve already written about not using them. Generally, I find it personally, artistically, and politically irritating when a word for a group of people is declared unusable, even in quotes. The “N-word,” for example. Why can’t I just write the word? Simply state the word that this post is about, simply so we’re all clear about what I mean? I clearly wouldn’t be using it at anyone, and by refraining from using it I’m not really doing anything to help. Nobody is going to say “Hey, Caroline Ailanthus didn’t write the N-word in a blog post, I guess that means I shouldn’t call the cops on that black man for looking suspiciously brown. And hey, when I go into work tomorrow, I’m going to give that woman with the black-sounding name a job interview. Her resume looks really good, and I’ve been being stupid.”

And I could use the word. Perhaps in another post I will. But it feels unclean and transgressive to do so, and I’m aware that it is becoming standard not to.

Like I said, I could go on at great length about why eliminating words in this way is a bad idea, why it’s much better to reclaim those words, or claim them for the first time, as has been done with “gay” and “witch.” I may be right…but I admit that part of my irritation here is simply that I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve never used the N-word for real (as opposed to when quoting someone else or when discussing the word itself), and I probably never would have, but I’ll probably never order a beer, either, yet it would irritate me if someone told me I couldn’t (I’m a teetotaler by choice, and find the scent of beer unpleasant, anyway).

But it’s not my word. I’m white.

Ice Cube’s articulation of principle, that the N-word belongs to black people now, is simple and clear and immediately intuitive. He’s right. I’m sure that he is right, and in putting it that way he makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense to me. I had thought that the public eclipse of the N-word indicated a curious weakness, a willingness to cede the meaning of the word to those who use it as an insult, as a weapon–in contrast to the word “gay,” which was an insult and is no longer, thanks to the work of gay people to claim it for their own. But if you own a thing, that means you get to decide what to do with it. Ice Cube is asserting that he, and those like him, do own that word now, and have simply decided not to share it. There is a lot of power in that.

(I don’t assume this decision was unanimous; no group of people has only one perspective)

This whole idea, that a people can own a word and deny its use to outsiders, reminds me of another issue I’ve seen floating around, one with particular resonance for writers: cultural appropriation.

As a white writer, is it ok for me to have a black protagonist? As a gentile, is it ok for me to have a Jewish protagonist?

As a storyteller of European descent, I feel comfortable with European folklore–Baba Yaga, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, and that wonderful fool, Jack. But what about Changing Woman? Coyote? Brer Rabbit? Rainbow Serpent? Is it ok for me to tell their stories, and if it is not, why not?

On the one hand, yes of course it is ok to write about people who are unlike oneself and to learn from other people—otherwise, we’d all be engaged in nothing but the most navel-gazing of memoir. On the other hand, to write about someone else over their objections just because we can, without even trying to understand why, is obnoxious at best.

Of course, there are a couple of different issues, here, but the one I want to talk about is ownership—who can properly by said to own an item of culture?

Here is a way to think of the issue that should make sense to writers: copyright.

I own these words. I don’t own the individual words, but I do own this particular arrangement of them, the one you’re reading now. International and US copyright law says that the act of creating copyrightable material confers copyright all by itself. If I don’t register the copyright I might have a hard time defending it in court, but the underlying principle is that we own what we write because we write it.

That is a very specific approach to intellectual property, and it’s obviously not the only possible approach. The law could have been written differently, and until relatively recently, it was. The underlying philosophy could also be different–it’s easy to imagine a society where individual creative output is simply not considered ownable, or some other variation.

Definitions of property in general are culturally variable. We know this, because we argue about definitions. Can a human being be owned? What about human tissue? Does the fact that something is owned mean it can’t have rights before the law, or do animals have rights? Can land be owned? I learned in school that Native Americans sold land to European colonists because they did not imagine land could be owned the way an object can be–they thought they were selling non-exclusive use rights only. I have since learned that was at best a radical oversimplification, but it’s an interesting idea and food for thought. Actually, in modern American law, land ownership doesn’t work the same way object ownership does, which is why we can be taxed on our land every year, but only pay taxes on objects at the point of sale. There are other avenues of philosophical contention. But you get the point.

One particular form of ownership we tend to struggle to understand is the commons. The term is most familiar in reference to shared pasturage, in part because that’s what the famous park, the Boston Commons, once was–a place where city residents could all graze their cattle.

The Tragedy of the Commons” is the idea, introduced in an article of the same name by Garrett Hardin, that common ownership of land is terrible for conservation because users lack any personal stake in the health of the land as a whole. Each user has instead an economic incentive to get as much use out of the commons as possible in order to compete with other users who are doing the same, leading to degradation of the whole. But as my friend and teacher Charles Curtin has argued, that’s not what a commons is. A real commons is not land owned by nobody and used freely by many independent individuals, but rather land owned by a community. Community members don’t act as independent agents each pursuing their own self-interest. They share a sense of group identity and group responsibility, and they also are subject to a system of community-enforced rules–graze more than your fair share of cattle on the commons, and your neighbors will ensure you pay for it.

Hardin made the mistake of confusing collective ownership with no ownership at all—and most of his readers made exactly the same mistake, which is why his idea has become received wisdom in some circles. That a community might have its own cohesive identity and authority seems counterintuitive to many, possibly due to an erosion of community itself, an erosion that is at least in part deliberate. Conquest and colonization obviously seek to undo their victims’ authority and autonomy, and the same processes operate within imperial countries as well, against local-scale communities and subcultures, to create economic and political unity and preclude dissent. The basic tension between community and centralized authority has been written about extensively by Gary Snyder and other authors. Suffice it to say here that multiple forms and systems of ownership exist and that to deny the existence of someone else’s system is an effective way to rob and demoralize them simultaneously.

You don’t own this land in MY lawbooks, therefore you don’t own it at all, therefore it is mine.

Now, is it possible that the concept of “commons” can be applied to intellectual property as well? Might communities own their stories, their songs, their names, their hairstyles, and everything else, the same way they own their land?

I don’t mean “creative commons,” a legal status within copyright law, I mean the principle that communities own their own cultures simply by virtue of having created them.

We agree that stories can be owned, as can technologies, as can names—we do it through the legal mechanisms of copyright, patent, and trademark, but might there be other mechanisms not currently recognized by US law but still carrying moral weight?

By this logic, I can’t tell the stories belonging to a culture I’m not part of for the same reason I can’t appropriate stories belonging to a corporation I’m not part of. If I want to tell a Star Trek story, I have to follow the rules laid out by Paramount Pictures, which owns the copyright—and Paramount is under no obligation to allow outsiders to tell Star Trek stories at all. They own it, and that means they get to decide what to do with it. What anyone else thinks they should do is irrelevant.

As writers, we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t want to be told we can’t use certain words, names, storylines, characters, motifs, or symbols. White writers specifically, unused to being subject to the rules of communities not our own, chaff against restraint especially. Sometimes we suspect a strange double-standard might be in play; since our culture is available freely to everybody, shouldn’t all cultures be?

The thing is, no it isn’t. My novel, To Give a Rose, is an item of mainstream American culture, and if you try to pretend it’s yours, or even to make and sell copies of it without my permission, I will sue you. Some items of my culture are available freely, but not all of it is.

We’re used to respecting copyright. That means both obeying copyright law and acknowledging the copyright holders have the right to make whatever decisions they want to about their work, not arguing against or second-guessing decisions we don’t like or don’t understand. We’re used to respecting trade mark as well—I can’t use the word “Xerox” without the permission of the people who own it. They’re ok with some use (I don’t have to refer to “the X-word”), but should I use it in print, uncapitalized, as a synonym for “photocopy,” or in order to say nasty things about the brand, I might well receive a “cease and desist” letter. As writers, we’re taught to respect intellectual property both because we’d rather not be sued and because these laws benefit us as well.

The N-word is owned as common property by black people. Ice Cube, acting as a representative of that community, recently issued a cease-and-desist letter on air to Bill Maher. The stories of Brer Rabbit, and the stories of Coyote, and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are also each owned collectively by communities, and those communities have a right to decide who gets to do what with those stories under what circumstances. The German people seem willing to share freely, but that’s their choice. Whether Disney or Warner Bros. received permission to re-tell Brer Rabbit and Coyote, respectively, I do not know.

I own these words. Because I have not registered copyright for this blog, I might not win in court if my copyright were challenged, but that doesn’t change the fact that I own them, and no ethical professional writer would plagiarize me. I could also choose not to defend my copyright, granting anyone anywhere permission to copy my stuff at least under some circumstances, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I own it (legally, copyright may be sold, given away, or lost, but it cannot be abandoned. There is no legal mechanism for giving intellectual property to the public domain–my Dad, a fellow writer, checked).

That community ownership of intellectual property cannot be defended in court and that such owners sometimes share their material freely does not lessen the moral weight of ownership. We writers might not like being told what to do, but if we want our ownership respected, we had better respect other forms of ownership as well.

That means when someone says, “this is ours, you can’t have it,” don’t argue.

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It’s Back! It’s Back!

My novel, To Give a Rose, is back among the living! You can, once again, buy it!

I’m not going to go through the entire saga of why it was out of touch and why it took so long to get it back. I’m just glad I can say I’m a published author without an asterisk again. All thanks be to Stefanie Fowler at Saltwater Media for making it happen.

Seriously, I used to think that once I found a publisher willing to say yes to my book, I’d basically be done. Perhaps there’d be a few loose ends to tie up, but basically I’d have done my part, hooray, I did it! And it would be time for other people to do their parts while I got on with writing the next book. Perhaps it works that way with some publishers, with some books, but in my experience, being a writer is a lot like being a parent in that your responsibilities change, but they never really go away. You’re never really done.

Not that I’ve ever been a parent, but I have parents, so I’m not entirely ignorant of the process.

So, the writing and editing is done, for better or worse. If I find a typo now, it’s too late! Now I have to resume marketing, a thing I do not know how to do, but will have to invent. It doesn’t help that I get overwhelmed easily and stall out, like an engine given too much gas at once. But I suppose I’ll figure that one out, too.

The other thing happening this year is I’m turning forty. I refuse to be intimidated by this fact. Older is what you get if you don’t die first, and I’m quite happy not to have died yet, thank you very much. I’m also quite happy that I am starting, ever so slowly, to stop judging myself for not being able to get done everything in a quick and straight-forward way. So what if it’s taken almost twenty years to shepherd this book from an idea into print? So what if I’ve become a great writer in the interim but have no idea what I’m doing in relation to marketing? So what if I don’t post to my blog and to social media really as often, or as regularly, as I’d like? We’re all going to die with items left on our to-do lists, anyway.

It’s not that short-comings and lapses and oversights don’t matter. They do. There are consequences. It’s that things happen over which we have no direct control and some of those things happen inside our own skulls. Others happen in the big, beautiful world out there, and in no case do I fully understand why everything is so gosh-darned difficult all the time, when it really looks like it shouldn’t be–and flagellating oneself for all of that or any of it is pointless.

I’m almost forty years old. I’m happily married, I’m currently healthy, I live in a place that is not a war zone, and I’ve managed to find a way of not only keeping my imaginary friends but getting other people to know and care about them, too.

Life is good.

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Killing Your Darlings

Among writers, the phrase “kill your darlings,” refers to editing away those parts of a document that don’t really belong, but to which you are attached. For example, those 22 pages of backstory that don’t really add anything to the plot, but which you included anyway because you’re proud of it? Yup, a darling, one that ought to be killed. A darling might actually be a character, or it could be a phrase, an idea, or even a spelling. I went through a phase of capitalizing words I considered spiritually important, like Sun and Moon. An editor explained why I should not do that and I acquiesced. Sigh. Darling killed.

Refusal to kill darlings is self-indulgent, and writers should never indulge themselves at the expense of their readers–or at the expense of the message or story they are trying to convey. You do that on your own time. When you show up for work, you’re a messenger, and you’ve got to get yourself out of the way.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever encountered was that writing is something like exploring and testing a structure, like a building, and that it is imperative to knock down any wall that you find does not actually support the structure–including those that originally seemed to be the point of the piece. So it’s not about denying your feelings as a writer, since you have to be able to feel when a detail has become unexpectedly important (or unexpectedly unimportant) to the story. It’s about jettisoning the self-indulgent.

But “kill your darlings” can mean something else, too.

Fiction writers, not infrequently, write about the deaths of their characters. And we like our characters, love them, sometimes. This is especially poignant when you consider that a lot of fiction writers consider our characters real. We argue with them, listen to them, take dictation from them…the objective reality of the situation is far from clear (are these beings fantasies? Alternate personalities? Ghosts? Faeries? Is their autonomy an illusion, or are they really real?), but the subjective sense is insistent; fiction is a collaborative effort between authors and their otherwise invisible friends.

To be clear, writing a death scene does not end the relationship. There’s still editing involved, after all, and maybe revisions or flashbacks to write. Even after a book is done, it’s sometimes possible to retain a connection with its protagonist. Writing a death scene does not cause the invisible friend to vanish. But it’s still hard. You write the thing and think maybe if I just wrote it differently. Or, if I don’t type these words, if I type different words, this person I care about can live longer. Happier. I am in charge. I could do this. Except you’re not in charge. Fiction writers are never in charge, not really. You have to be true to the story, as well as true to the people in it, and the story says this person dies here.

Fiction writing feels like observation, more than anything else. Changing the plot once it is established in your mind would feel dishonest. You’d think but that’s not what really happened.

I don’t tend to go easy on my character’s lives. Some writers do, at least for their protagonists. I mean, I used to kind of wish I were a Barbara Kingsolver character. Sure, they go through some difficult things, but they usually end up self-possessed and personally fulfilled by the end of the story, with a circle of loving friends. A really hot guy usually appears somewhere along the way. But I don’t envy my own characters.  I put them through too much. And sometimes I feel bad for that.

Many years ago, I noticed a line in a Don McLean song that triggered one of the most productive trains of thought I’ve ever had:

Weathered faces, lined in pain, are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

The artist in question was Vincent van Gogh, and the line recollects the painting, The Potato Eaters. But what jumped out at me was the verb, “soothed.” If painted faces are unhappy, how can the painter be said to have soothed them? After all, the act of painting is what put those pain-lines there to begin with. Wouldn’t a compassionate artist paint happy people?

Of course, the entire point of The Potato Eaters is that they aren’t happy. That is their truth, and van Vogh honored that truth in his painting. A painting about happy people eating potatoes would be a painting of different people. Turning those frowns upside down with a stroke of a brush would be an act of denial, not of kindness.

Is it possible, then, for an artist (or a writer) to enact compassion by creating a character in pain, and thereby witnessing and honoring the truth of that character?

In that case, I can say to my protagonists, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry everything was so difficult for you. But you didn’t go through any of it alone. I was always there with you, watching, and all of it meant something. And when you come to die, I will still be with you, putting words to things, and caring about you.

Would I accept that, were I in his shoes?

I might. And I might be in his situation. I don’t know that I’m not somebody’s character, and that possibility is preferable to some others. It is an existence with meaning. Many people have described God as an artist, so that idea isn’t new or without merit.

If God is indeed a writer, then praying for a happier ending is pointless–the scenes we get are the ones the plot demands. Something bigger than us is at stake. No writer singles a favorite character out for better treatment at the expense of the plot. The flipside here is that pain and difficulty don’t have to cause anyone to feel abandoned or meaningless. You did nothing wrong, and God loves you just as you are. This is just the way the story goes.

But the issue of writing about a protagonist’s death is a bit different than writing about pain, because no matter how gentle I was with my characters, they would still die eventually–whether I wrote about it or not. I don’t typically write about immortal beings. I’m not deciding that my characters die, therefore. That’s a given. I’m deciding that when they die, they get to do it with my company, my witness. Wouldn’t that be a comfort? Isn’t that better? And yet to write about the death of a character I like is still difficult.

These scenes are difficult, but, curiously, not final. Right now, for example, I’m working on a short story (possibly a novella) that ends with the death of my protagonist, Andy. And yet, I’m simultaneously working on other stories in which that same character is very much alive. I can see his life as a whole in my mind, and I can focus on any point within that life that I want to. I can watch his birth (natural. Afterwards, his parents argued about whether to have him circumcised), his childhood (lonely, often frustrated, but stubborn), his adolescence (prescribed Ritalin for ADD, he saved and sold the pills and used the money to buy a mountain bike), or any other part of his life. The are all equally real. His death does not end him, except in the sense that an object, such as a pencil or a fork, has an end. One end of a pencil is pointy. The other one usually has an eraser.

Now, my non-fictional friend, Gary, died recently. I don’t know the circumstances of his birth. I know very few of the episodes of his life, only those which he has told me. Even if I did know him much more intimately than I do, his death would still rob me of further experience of his life, because I can’t experience the past as vividly as I experience the present. I have his letters, and shall keep them, but it does matter to me that I won’t get another letter from him. And yet, since the end of the fictional Andy does not invalidate or destroy his middle, and the end of a pencil does not invalidate or destroy the pencil, why should the end of Gary invalidate or destroy him? He exists only in the past, but he does exist.

Once you kill your darlings, the world starts looking different. And that’s a good thing.

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