UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

 

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage

Heroes & Villains

I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

plot book

By the late Ansen Dibell (aka Nancy Ann Dibble)

Actually this may not be true, since I managed to write a novel that more than one reviewer called “tightly plotted.” Let’s just say that plotting doesn’t come easy. One of the few how-to books I consult from time to time is called, simply, Plot.

My internal editor is forever nixing the kind of scene that makes for an exciting plot. She thinks they’re melodramatic or unbelievable. This is probably because my life has a meandering plot that would be deadly dull in fiction, though it leads through some interesting scenes and encounters some very interesting characters.

Evidently other writers are plot-challenged too. There are at least a gazillion websites out there to teach us how to plot.

Many of them start with protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The main characters (i.e., the ones you like and want your readers to identify with and care about) want to get somewhere. The antagonist(s) get in their way and have to be overcome or neutralized somehow.

Call them heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.

I get it, but there’s nothing that turns me off faster than a character whose sole purpose is to mess with the hero’s head and/or life. Why are these characters messing with the hero’s life? Because they’re villains, that’s why. Because they’re evil. Because the author needs a bad guy or two to give the good guys a hard time because otherwise there would be no plot.

Um, no.

“Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” I can’t remember where I picked up this brilliant insight, but it applies both to real life and to writing. It’s especially important when you’re creating (or giving birth to) characters you don’t like who are going to mess with the characters you do like. Nearly all of them have their own stories. Some of their stories are muddled or inchoate or otherwise incomprehensible to a rational person. Some are crystal clear: If you interrupt them in mid-stride, they can tell you exactly where they’re going and what they plan to do when they get there. Sometimes the story is driving the bus and the character is along for the ride, maybe willingly, maybe not.

devil“We are each other’s angels” goes the song. My teeth start itching at any reference to angels. There’s something about the concept that makes smart people start babbling in clichés. But OK, point taken: we are each other’s guides, teachers, helpers, and so on. But if we’re each other’s angels, we’re also each other’s devils, roadblocks, obstacles. When a character is the hero of her own story but the villain in someone else’s — that’s where things get interesting.

And more than a little scary.

When we call someone “evil,” it’s often because we can’t imagine what story they’re the hero of. We don’t want to. The story is probably icky. Maybe we’re so sure we’re on the side of the angels (oops) that we just don’t care why the other guy does what he does.

Writing well means grappling with the icky, in other people and in ourselves. So far all my less-than-heroic or downright nasty characters have been facets of my own self: I understand their impulses, I’ve often thought their thoughts; I just haven’t acted on them either because I haven’t had the opportunity or I didn’t have the nerve. There but for fortune . . .

In Wolfie, my novel in progress, I seem to be walking toward my first real villain, a man I’m sorely tempted to call evil. He’s a successful lawyer, and he sexually abused his stepdaughter over a period of time when she was seven years old. She’s now eleven, and it looks to me as if he’s going to try it again.

At the moment I can’t imagine what story he’s the hero of. Well, no: I know a good chunk of the story. What I don’t know is how sexually molesting a seven-year-old fits into it. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? When he looks at his wife, who is the girl’s biological mother? When he looks at the girl herself? Statistics suggest that he may have been abused himself growing up. Was he? By whom? A family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a priest?

So far I can’t see out of this man’s eyes, but when I’m doing dishes or walking in the woods glimpses of him appear in my peripheral vision. He’s taking shape.

Part of me wants to stuff him back into my imagination, turn the lock, and pile heavy stones on the lid.

In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973; reprinted in The Language of the Night) Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about fantasy, but much of what she says applies to other writing as well, both fiction and nonfiction. This is how the essay ends:

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

What she said.