Friday, April 16, 2010

Critters are a blessing

There comes a point in the creation process where it can be difficult to look at your own piece and see it with any kind of perspective. I can look at all the words and layers and promise and feel certain there's something I need to fix--and have no clue what it is. And that's where I've gotten insanely lucky lately. I have stumbled into a group of talented readers who are devoted problem solvers with strong analytical skills.

What? Problem solvers? Strong analytical skills? Don't those come second to an amazing way with words and a degree in grammar or literature?


My posse is at a point where we've accepted that words are our tools and that each of us has our own unique set of them. Once in a while, someone wouldn't mind a nudge suggesting that a tool didn't work quite the way we wanted it to (a little like a house painter might realize that the mini-paint roller wasn't the perfect tool for finishing a doorframe), but we wouldn't appreciate anyone trying to get in the way our own particular voice or methodology.

What we want is someone to look at the way problems are set up in the piece and how they are resolved. Someone who can eyeball the structure of a story and see if its plumb. If the characters ring true. And more than anything else, we need somebody else to see if there is actual tension stretching through the piece.

You see, the difference between an okay story and a good one is the sensation of a thread of tension pulling the protagonist through the story. In a good story, there's conflict. In a great story, there is conflict that the protagonist MUST live through--that for some internal reason, he must pass through the god-awful conflicts to release an inner sense of tightness.

And we, the readers, have to feel that tension, even if we don't understand it. We must be pulled through the story as if we have been hooked on a fishing line, and as we are wriggling on the hook, we're swallowed up by a giant fish. We feel every rib squeezing pump of the monster's peristaltic movements. We feel the burning sting of the stomach acid. And we constantly feel the yank of the fish hook in our mouths, dragging us toward shore so hard that we're jerked through the last few feet of guts and fecal matter to shoot up out of the water. Sore. Bloodied. Anguished. But exhilarated.

Remember, we can't see the fisherman on the shore, dragging us along. We only see the fish guts. That's how it is in a great story: there's something invisible moving the story along, and all that is clearly depicted is the dangerous inner world of conflict. Only at the ending can we really see what's been happening.

As a writer, it's damn hard to tell if you've gotten the hook set right. If while the hero is fighting some big fight (maybe it's with his mother-in-law, maybe it's with a zombie, it doesn't matter), there's no sense that there's something pulling his character through that moment for some reason, then the story is failing. It's letting down the reader. And only a reader can tell you if you've succeeded in that moment.

After all the work I put into the piece I'm able to plug in an imaginary sense of tension because I know what's supposed to happen. There's been a time or two when I've been able to go back to a piece and read it like a fresh-eyed reader. But those times are very rare. The rest of the time, I depend on my critters. Basically every story I've written and liked, I owe it to them. Thanks, guys. You're the best.


Miriam S. Forster said...

Who are these awesome people? Can I borrow them? :)

Wendy Wagner; said...

I bought them on the Internet! :) Actually, it's my Twitter writing group. Genius people.

But if you ever need a critter, Miriam, just ask!