Thursday, January 12, 2012

A sf/f writer experiments in literary thinking

I never thought of myself as a literary writer. Sure, I've done a bit of reading (ok, quite a bit) of literature that's considered classic, but that was never my thing. I always knew I was a writer of science fiction and fantasy. However, the further I go into this the more I can see value in some of the features of literary writing that I learned about in school (in fact, I learned more in university level discourse analysis than I did in high school English).

My goal has never been to get high-falutin'. I've seen, and laughed at, plenty of those jokes and stories about how the literary reader sees someone next to a blue curtain and draws all kinds of extra conclusions about mood etc. when all the writer meant to do was make the curtain blue. But I'm lucky enough to work with someone who views literary interpretation in quite a new way (new enough that she's doing research on her teaching techniques). And I'm realizing that while we may not intend to give things extra meaning, a lot of times those meanings sneak in anyway.

Let me get specific. I'd been working for years on the idea of aligning metaphors with features of the story. After all, to me a metaphor that doesn't link up with anything else is merely showing that the writer wants to be cool and use a metaphor (which is limited in its usefulness). In my worlds, metaphors have to be consistent with the worldview of a character. The girl who compares fields of grass to bedsheets because she's never seen the former, and seen plenty of the latter. The alien who compares working toward major life goals with chasing down quarry. Our metaphors come out of what is familiar to us, and having a metaphor from our world happen in a world that is unlike our own can be at best slightly clunky, at worst, something that throws a reader out of the story completely.

Then I wrote a story (out on submission now) where a metaphor got a little out of hand - in a cool way. I had a Japanese character who was suffering enormous grief and rage, interacting with a nature spirit who had been recently hit by a bolt of lightning. It seemed natural to set the story during typhoon season. But as I wrote it, the typhoon metaphor grew. There were typhoons happening during the story - a character waiting for rain - a character trying to contain a typhoon inside herself - someone trying to create a raincoat... So, naturally, I went to my literary friend and said, "Yikes, can you look at this?" And she grinned at me as though I'd just discovered something she knew about all along. I suppose you could think about it like a piece of art that has the same color in multiple places across the composition. It's almost like hiding a beautiful pattern in the story for the reader to find if they'd like - not letting it be the whole point, or letting it take away from the main conflict, but picking something that will play into the main conflict and allow the different parts of the story to link together. Even if a reader isn't consciously aware of it, their subconscious probably will be on some level, allowing it to contribute to the "feel" of the story.

In fact, I'd been struggling with a literary-symbol task for a while before the typhoon story started lining up. Why? Well, because in my Varin world, there is an unusual phenomenon that the local people don't really understand, characterized by two things:

1. Small, bead-sized (1/4 in diameter?) will-o'-the-wisp type energy creatures, called wysps, that float around the underground cities and the surface, drifting through walls and generally being a sort of background phenomenon;
2. Incredibly tall "trees" called shinca whose trunks grow up from the rock underneath the city and continue on without branching all the way to the surface, where they branch and grow "fruit." The shinca give off heat and a bright silvery glow. They are also invulnerable, so buildings must be built around them.

Now, there is plenty of room for me in later stories to make the shinca and wysps be a topic of mystery and questioning, and to allow characters to try to figure out their nature. But not in this one, which means that I have to write an entire novel in which both shinca and wysps are simply a part of the background and normal day to day life in Varin. But I knew that if I just left it at that, I'd end up with some people going, "what's the point of having these things?" So I'd been looking around for ways to help them fit in with what's happening in the story in some way. I decided as an experiment to have wysps show up when people were taking risks, and to have shinca appear when people were getting insights.

As plans go, it sounded clunky, but I was game to give it a try, because the last thing I wanted was for people to say "If you take these out, the story won't suffer." I can't take them out. So they can't seem extraneous.

As I've been writing, however, I've sometimes put them in in places where I didn't expect to, and sometimes omitted them in places where they might have appeared. And then yesterday I realized my subconscious had been up to something. I was putting wysps in places where people were taking, not just any sort of risks, but risks related to social boundaries that were associated with highly charged emotional states. At the same time, the shinca were appearing not with all insights, but in scenes where protagonist characters got specific kinds of insights - and appearing to interfere with the antagonist's insights. Something tells me the human brain loves patterns so much it schemes them constantly without conscious help. I can feel a pattern coming together that fits with a lot of the fantastical qualities I had given to shinca and wysps already, and so far it's not feeling clunky. I'm sure that revision will help me make it work more effectively, but I'm excited to realize that not only will I have a good reason to keep shinca in wysps in the current book, but that their thematic meanings will actually be able to carry forward into the later stories where they become more of a central issue.

I'm not sure what kind of suggestions I can make for other people's writing. What I can say is that no metaphor or simile should be considered to stand alone. If you find you're writing a descriptive phrase just because you've always wanted to use that phrase somewhere, make sure to check it - see if it fits into the mentality of this character, into the values of the society and the world. If you're describing a particular phenomenon a great deal, you might want to ask yourself if it has any ulterior significance to the culture, the characters, the story problem, the themes you're trying to evoke.

One more thing. I tend to focus a lot on doors. It's not something I ever consciously planned, but there are lots of occasions when people can go through a door in one way or another, or hang in a door, or not want to stand in the door, etc. Now, believe me when I say that for the most part in my work, a door is a door (aside perhaps from the fact that I've made sure the architecture fits the culture of the groups I'm working with). I'm not planning to drop everything about pushing my story forward and run off to look at every instance of doors in my story. However, in Varin at least, a lot of the story issues have to do with what kinds of behaviors are closed off, what kinds of people are supposed to have barriers between them, etc. - and so maybe a focus on doors makes sense. Maybe if and when I get Varin published, someone will pick up the book and go, "you know, she was up to something with those doors." It's possible I am, without even thinking.

It's something to think about.


  1. One can even have metaphor on a bigger level, in particular the science part of science fiction. Let me give a few examples:

    * In Mike Flynn's story "The Clapping Hands of God," the humans travel to an alien world via a "hidden" dimension. While they observe the aliens secretly, it turns out that what is really going on in the alien society is also hidden from them. (They travel via an alternate brane, a speculative idea in modern physics, and Mike refers to the idea of colliding branes -- the "clapping hands" of the title--being the origin of our universe.) A terrific story.

    * Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" has a scientist seeking to invent faster-than-light communication...while trying to overcome communication difficulties between two estranged worlds. (A wonderful novel for metaphors and images.)

    * Elizabeth Bear's novel "Undertow" involves a fictional mineral tanglestone, which has naturally occuring quantum entanglement...and the plot is about our political, personal, and environmental entanglements. (Such a mineral couldn't really exist, but it works well as a metaphor.)

    * In John Scalzi's "Old Man's War," the FTL drive gets around the limit of the speed of light by jumping to imperceptibly different universes... and many plot issues revolve around the question of identity (the consciousness and personality of the "old man" is transferred to a new, young body, and he later meets a clone of his late wife)

    I could go on, but that's the idea.

    By the way, I don't see what's wrong with being "high-falutin'." While impenetrable styling can hinder a story, elegant writing often can add depth and power.

    -- CWJ

    1. CWJ, thanks for commenting! I don't see anything wrong with elegance, either - but I do know a lot of folks cringe at any mention of the word "literary." I really appreciate your recommendations. There's a lot more literary stuff going on in sf/f stories than most people realize.