I was going to link this post by longtime blogging acquaintance Will Duquette in a Sentential Links post, but I realized that there’s an awful lot going on in that post, so much so that it warrants its own response post. Or something like that.
Anyway, Will is apparently gearing up to commit acts of fiction, to which I say, Huzzah!. To that end, he has a few thoughts on the fictional enterprise, a couple of which interested me.
Some folks, when asked, will say they wrote a novel or a short story because “that was the only way they could say what they wanted to say.” This strikes me as disingenuous: the sort of thing an author says when someone asks him what a story means, and he has to say something if he doesn’t want to be rude. It isn’t untrue, precisely, because fiction is all about story-telling: the only way to tell to a story is to tell a story, and if the author in question simply wanted to tell a story then indeed that was the only way he could do it.
What the phrase “they wanted to say” seems to imply, though, is some kind of message the author wants to get across. I suppose many authors do write fiction with a message in mind, but I’ve always thought that to be the straight road to fictional wrack and ruin. Certainly, I can’t do it, not and make the story interesting.
I’m not sure who said it, but it’s a favorite quote of mine. I tried sourcing it, and it seems to spring from the days of the studio film industry, but I’ve seen it attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Warner, and Frank Capra, so who knows who actually said it, but it goes like this:
If you want to send a message, use Western Union.
That tends to be my approach as well. I never write with the intention of saying anything, specifically. But I can’t help saying something along the way. It’s just that whatever I’m saying is coming out of my subconscious mind. I never craft a story with any particular message in mind.
I don’t know what other authors do, or what the “greats” did, along those lines. Charles Dickens seems to have had a great deal on his mind in his novels, but he tells fascinating stories along the way. So does John Steinbeck — The Grapes of Wrath is certainly a book that says a lot, but he could have said those things in an essay, too. So I think I tend to have a bit more sympathy for the idea of “saying something in a story”, but not because that’s the only way of saying it, but for this writer or that writer, it’s the best.
And this still doesn’t take into account the problem of which comes first, the message or the tale in which it’s embedded. There are some novelists who definitely seem to me to approach their books with their “something to say” strongly in mind, to the point where the story is just window dressing for a lecture or sermon. This is one reason why I find Ayn Rand so abysmally disgusting as a writer — not only do I find her message morally odious and logically faulty, but she’s a crappy storyteller, too.
Am I trying to “say” something in Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title)? Not really, at least, not so much as I can tell…beyond my general view that the Universe is a pretty spectacular place.
Next from Will:
S’Mary’s World is different. There I actually started with an idea: an explicitly Catholic colony world, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, and forced to fall back on the monastic model in order to preserve its technology and culture. How could such a place come to be? How would it evolve? And then, what stories would naturally arise in such a place? That led me to the bits of history I’ve been publishing.
As a Catholic, I always write from a Catholic point of view—like Tolkien, I like worlds where Catholic theology is true even if not known. But though S’Mary’s World is Catholic in world-view and Catholic in setting, it isn’t meant to be Catholic fiction, i.e., fiction for Catholics. It’s meant to be just plain fiction with a Catholic setting. (Can’t help the world-view; that’s just me.)
So now I’m trying something I’ve not done before: to write a complete story in a world that I’ve already imagined, instead of letting the world form as part of the process of writing the story. I’ve got a character, and a situation, and a story—and I’ve got to figure out how to tell it, instead of letting it tell itself. Frightening, really. We’ll see how it goes.
A lot to unpack here. Starting with the last point first, I tend to take a pretty lax approach to world building myself. As I write — which is, ultimately, really the first time the story is being read — I am finding things out about its world. When I started Princesses a few years back, I knew very little about the world. Very little. I didn’t even know the name of the main planet on which the tale takes place. I actually only knew one thing about that planet, which created the book’s central dramatic conflict. The other details filled themselves in as I went. I did not spend lots of time generating notebooks full of stuff on the flora and fauna of this planet, making this stuff up as I went. I posited a particular large predatory beast, which then required (a) some other stuff for that beast to eat, and (b) a reason why that beast may or may not have been domesticated. I had to come up with some geography for the planet’s main two locations, and I had to generate a bit of historical detail to explain the situation there.
But I did all this on the fly, cheerfully making up the details and slotting them in as needed (and making notes about each new detail in my files as I went). This worked pretty well — or at least it seems to have worked pretty well — but now, first with Princesses II and likely with future books in the series, events will be partially determined by the details I already established. Once you put your main character in a mountain village, you can’t have him wake up in a city at the bottom of the ocean, right? Or at least if you do, you’d better come up with something good to explain it.
So I’m not totally making it all up as I go, but at the same time, I don’t know each detail as it comes. Yes, this can result in problems along the way, when I need to remember something.
That’s all well and good for the Princesses books, and also for GhostCop (not the actual title), which I have set in my own city of New Mowbray, Michigan (which I have done mainly so I can set a book in Buffalo but free myself from troubling things like Buffalo’s actual geography and history). What about Lighthouse Boy (not the actual title)? Well, this book is more of a historical swashbuckler, set in a land that never existed. For this one, I had to do a lot more heavy lifting than I did with Princesses, because this book is all about history and historical forces and how things that happened a hundred years ago still affect things today. It’s about Kings and Princes and what happens to realms when rulers die without heir and all the rest of that sort of thing. So Lighthouse Boy has several maps, along with quite a few pages of notes detailing who rules what and where, what the various alliances are, why this Duke wants to go to war against that Duchess, and so on and so forth. A lot of this may never show up in the finished book, and I tried to only do the worldbuilding I felt necessary for the story I want to tell — if I’m writing a story in a fake Victorian England, there’s really not much reason to worldbuild my way all the way back to the Plantagenets. If I need more detail, I’ll make it up when I need it. And dutifully write it down. But I did have to come up with some stuff to start with.
Finally, I’m intrigued by Will’s approach to Catholicism in his writing. I’m not Catholic, so I am under no such “obligation” (if that’s even the right word), but I do recall reading an interview with Gene Wolfe in which Wolfe, one of the finest writers alive today and a devout Catholic, says that Catholicism does indeed inform and infuse all of his writing, even if it’s not about any kind of specifically Catholic subject matter at all. I’m paraphrasing here — I don’t remember where I read this interview — but I remember Wolfe basically indicating that if something is as deeply a part of someone as his Catholicism is a part of him, then it’s not possible for it not to be present in the fiction in some way. I think that’s true, to a large extent; writers may make stuff up, but even writers ultimately can’t be who they aren’t. As a non-Catholic, I know that JRR Tolkien’s Catholicism can be found in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s not obvious at all, and in fact, to the non-Catholic, it even has to be explained at times just where one may find bits of Catholic world-view laying about. Of course, that’s at a lower level than what Will’s talking about; Will indicates that his setting is specifically Catholic. And that’s fine. I’ve read those kinds of tales, too.
So, what spiritual views of mine will show up in my fiction? I don’t know, and that’s likely because I tend to have relatively little idea of what my real spiritual views even are. But if I’ve got any writing chops at all, I hope it will be at least somewhat clear from my work how I look at things here on Earth and how I think we little humans relate to our big, amazing Universe. I don’t want to get too obvious in all that, though. For one thing, I don’t know where I’d even find a Western Union office anymore.
I've never liked quotes attacking meaningful messages in fiction. Isn't that the difference between an action flick and an Oscar winner? Some deeper meaning? Not just another cop story, but one that couldn't help but highlight a current event or two while representing how most people felt about said event(s)?
I think authors inevitably leave messages, and many celebrated works got their status because of messages conveyed. Even by creating a pretty swell universe, the intelligent reader can't help but compare that universe to his/her own and derive a level of meaning, intended or not. When something goes wrong in a Catholic setting, the reader will inevitably wonder if that was meant to hint at the church being imperfect or corrupt or whatever, and if it's all sunshine and roses in the fictional Catholic world, then the reader will pick up on that also.
For me, fiction needs to be true. True to its own construct. Your Michigan town can be a stand-in for Buffalo, but it can't suddenly only 400 miles from NYC, as Buffalo is. Spider-Man can't suddenly begin to fly.
And, I suppose, it should tell me something. I loved 11/22/63 by King because the narrative is true, the Oswald timeline is largely true, even if the specific non-LHO stuff is not.