New Me meets Old Story: on reading our old writing

Sometimes, those days come when we page back through old writing, scroll up in a long WiP to where it all began, where perhaps no one has looked for years. What do we find? How do we relate to what we wrote in our pasts? How do we understand where we have come from, and where we are going?

The fjord this morning. It’s starting ice over.

Recently I dug out one of my first short stories. So far back, I wrote it over half of my life ago. It was a simple story of a girl whose friend developed an eating disorder (something I think we were studying in health class). The narrator watched unknowingly while her friend’s habits changed, while her health worsened, until all was too late.

I look back at this childhood story with truly mixed reactions. Its tone is juvenile. I used the wrong “your.” I smile at its narrator’s naïveté, which was truly my own. Yet there are moments I pause. I remember so vividly the night I wrote this story. Twelve years old, I’d been tasked to write a short story for English class. All evening I had searched for an idea, until at last, lying in bed, inspiration came. My brain whirred. I stole out of bed, booted up my parents’ enormous desktop computer, and typed out a draft until two in the morning. How captivated I was. How much I wanted to tell that story.

I can see young Jimmy there: yes, young Jimmy the writer, but also Jimmy the friend, Jimmy the carer. There I am. That’s beautiful.

Sometimes, what I find is less flattering. For years before I knew to call my struggle with anxiety and depression what it really was, I wrote reams of journals running through my thoughts, repeating, dissecting, ruminating, entrenching thought patterns that ultimately hurt me. I don’t often revisit those pages now, because, as I’ve learned in the years since writing them, they are thoughts better released than plumbed. When I do go back, I see a lot of pain in those words. I pity the person I find there, wishing I could tell him that the writing, this time, isn’t helping.

The other reaction that sometimes comes for me is embarrassment. Did I write that? What was I thinking? Why was this important to me? Let’s hide that away. Let’s forget it.

If we can, I think it’s important to relate to our past selves with compassion rather than embarrassment. Writing is a unique sort of record of a person, whether journal, story, or poetry. Therein may hide our most personal thoughts. Also important to remember, therein lie the seeds of who we are today, beautiful and ugly.

Someday, the things we write today, we will read again. Will we be moved? Embarrassed? Kind? Callous? The stories we write are the products of our minds, and minds are forever evolving. Let what we wrote then be the words of an old friend.

What do you feel when you read your old words? What excites or confuses you? What emotions rise up? Do you resurrect old stories, or do you let them lie?

Love to you all, and happy writing,

Jimmy

An old song. It feels fitting for this post.
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How social identities affect our writing: #OwnVoices and social justice

I recently finished reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power, for me a game-changing look at gender and historical power hierarchies. The engrossing story that follows the sudden reversal of gender hierarchies worldwide opens with a letter from its fictional author, a member of The Men Writers Association.

The book has me thinking about #OwnVoices literature and its significance in the world of social justice. How do our identities affect what we write, and how does it affect how our work is read and interpreted? Please share your thoughts in comments below–I am eager to have discussions about this!

While a huge proportion of the books written, read, and reviewed today are being written by majority authors, authors from marginalized social groups are emerging everywhere. As I’ve been recently exploring the Twitterverse, I’ve been thrilled by, in particular, how many LGBT writers I’ve been able to connect with. It seems like, however far our world still has to go in the fight for equality, there are great people out there using writing to make a difference, to raise visibility, to support other members of our communities, and to keep showing that we are here to stay.

Ysaye Barnwell on singing. I think this is a good metaphor for us writers and what we do.

Why #OwnVoices lit is so important

In my teenage years, books about (and often written by) LGBT people like me were my lifeblood. Boy Meets Boy, the Rainbow Boys trilogy, and The Order of the Poison Oak were instrumental in my own coming out and self acceptance. In years since, I grew through Beloved, The Color Purple, Americanah, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Island Beneath the Sea, The Joy Luck Club, The Latehomecomerand others, learning about the experiences of people different from myself and simultaneously seeing my own struggles reflected around the world and through time.

For young people building a sense of identity, as well as for adults continuing to seek growth and inspiration, representation of people like us in the books we read allows us to connect, to feel heard, and to encounter alternative ways of facing life’s challenges. Check out Sierra Ayonnie’s post on how she responded to her audience’s genre preferences.

And for many of us writers, the act of reframing, penning, and sharing these stories that often go to our most vulnerable places (see Meg Dowell’s lovely post about writing stories from our hearts), that act is cathartic in and of itself and helps us to grow as people as well as writers.

Simultaneously, these books educate people who do not share these identities by challenging stereotypes, raising awareness of minority experiences, and creating conversation.

The flip side: further marginalization and tokenism

Yet in the very identification of our work as #OwnVoices, LGBT fiction, African-American literature, women’s fiction, immigrant narratives, and so on, a limiting happens. When writing by immigrants is called Immigrant Writing, its audience becomes focused, its reach lessened, and the opportunity for that author to speak to the world at large is diminished.

I am a gay writer, yet little of what I write clearly fits the bill of LGBT literature. Although the experience afforded me or forced upon me by this identity undoubtedly informs my writing, it does not circumscribe the stories I want (or am able) to tell. To call myself an LGBT writer feels on the one hand a badge of pride for me; on the other, it is a steep-walled box.

The way forward

How should we as minority writers navigate this issue? How can be both be fighters for social justice and our communities and also resist being boxed in, apart from the mainstream literary community?

I believe we have to keep telling all kinds of stories. If we are telling stories of our own identities or even our own direct experiences, let us tell them beautifully, engagingly, with our best craft. And let us not tell them only as black stories or gay stories or stories of disability; let us tell them as human stories, because ultimately, that is what they are, and the stories of minority humans are as deeply human as anyone else’s.

Dr. Angelou, you are missed.

In that vein, I speak now to us writers who do not share these identities, because the voices of allies are so powerful and so essential. And by “allies” I mean:

  • The cis, straight, Christian, white men out there, and
  • The gay white man with regards to Muslim writing,
  • The Indian-American woman with regards to Latino writing,
  • The heterosexual black woman with regards to trans writing,
  • All of us. We can all do this.

Of us, I ask these things:

  1. Read work by minority authors. Read work about people different from you.
  2. Share those voices. Include them on lists of great books. Sure, include them on lists of great minority writing, but also include them when you talk about great books in general.
  3. Represent an array of identities in your own writing. Normalize all kinds of people, not as tokens, but as central, round, amazing, flawed, human characters. Show in their struggles essential human struggles.

Thank you for reading. Please pass this on. Please write.

As I said above, I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How do you engage with #OwnVoices writing? How can we both write for our communities and not close ourselves off from others? What are your experiences? What are you reading? I’m eager to hear.

Best wishes this week, and love to all of you,

Jimmy

The late Pete Seeger leading a group sing of “We Shall Overcome.” Thank you for your allyship!

On authentic writing, bread, and Like Water for Chocolate

For those of us in Western cultures and the Middle East, there are few foods more staple than bread. We might not even notice the bread as we swim through grocery store aisles (shoutout to Hannah Whiteoak’s “Earth Report”), throw a sandwich in our lunchboxes, proclaim some sensational new dip at a party…

Onion focaccia. A group of students, my husband, and I baked this in our school’s wood fire oven.

Often invisible by its very ubiquity, bread can have a hard time standing out. Yet, on those rare occasions when we happen upon a loaf of fresh-baked, wholesome, crusty-eared bread. Golly. That’s all I’m going to say about that experience, and if you aren’t sure what I mean, please, go bake a loaf right now. Right now.

I’m in the process of querying my first novel , and for the past couple weeks, amidst traveling and holidays and family and rainy days, my writing has been ever-present in my mind. So it was yesterday, as my husband and I baked a loaf of bread from flour we ground ourselves in the grain mill we received for Christmas.

I’m thinking, and maybe I’m not so far out there, that bread and fiction, both are the stuff of life. Let’s explore that for a little while here. Along the way, I’ll use Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) as an exemplar. This book is all about food and life, and I have to believe its protagonist, Tita, would approve.

Aeration & inference

Tita was trying to keep that warning in mind as she got set to castrate the first chicken. The castration is done by making an incision over the chicken’s testicles, sticking your finger in to get a hold of them, and pulling them out. After that is done, the wound is sewn up and rubbed with fresh lard or chicken fat. Tita almost swooned when she stuck her finger in and grasped the testicles of the first chicken.


Her hands were shaking and she was dripping sweat and her stomach was swooping like a kite on the wind. Mama Elena looked at her piercingly, and said: “What’s the matter? Why the shaking? Are we going to start having problems?” Tita raised her eyes and looked at her. She felt like screaming, Yes, she was having problems, when they had chosen something to be neutered, they’d made a mistake, they should have chosen her. At least then there would be some justification for not allowing her to marry and giving Rosaura her place beside the man she loved. Mama Elena read the look on her face and flew into a rage, giving Tita a tremendous slap that left her rolling in the dirt by the rooster, which had died from the bungled operation.

Let us begin not with the bread itself, but with the holes in bread. For truly, it is the fluffy, aerated texture that gives life to bread. Most bread is over seventy-five percent air by volume, and those tiny pockets contain vaporized flavor that is primarily available to us because of its gaseous form.

The first loaf we made with flour from our new hand-mill. 100% whole wheat, 93% hydration. I feel really good about the aeration, even if the dome is pretty flat. Here’s the recipe we used.

So too, the magic of reading happens in gaps between the words. As writers, we are forever weaving more a net than a solid cloth in our stories, identifying a telling detail here and omitting there, and it is for good reason: readers’ imaginations must be activated for them to engage in what we write (see this idea dramatized in a lovely poem here). We can guide that imagination with images and metaphors, but if we try to do all the work for them, the story becomes so dense that readers push it away.

In the example heading this section, Esquivel choses key details on which to focus, and which to omit:

The castration is done by making an incision over the chicken’s testicles, sticking your finger in to get a hold of them, and pulling them out.

Her first description of the castration process is clinical, using surgical terms like “incision” and “testicles,” but it rapidly becomes personal with the informal words “sticking,” “get a hold,” and the second-person address. Notice that this is the closest we get to the detail of actually extracting the testicles. Esquivel doesn’t describe the viscera, the sliminess, etc. She doesn’t have to, because our minds have gone there already.

What Esquivel does give us, and what allows readers to make the next necessary (and in this case, symbolic) leap, is a vivid description of Tita’s reaction:

Her hands were shaking and she was dripping sweat and her stomach was swooping like a kite on the wind.

We get the disgust, and the experience becomes grosser perhaps because have not been given a full description. Tita’s physical reactions then propel us into remembering that, at this moment, Pedro, Tita’s love, is about to be married to her sister. Suddenly the castrated rooster is… Pedro. Or is it Tita herself? Again, Esquivel doesn’t say, and this allows us as readers to explore and construct meaning.

Good fiction is aerated, always with the small pockets of unspecified detail, often with the great caverns of mystery or an offstage scene. In our perpetual endeavors to show show show, to pack in sensory detail, we inadvertently press all the air from our writing, and the result falls flat.

Structure

Yet to hold that air in fiction, we must, like bakers, build into our creations a structure. In the case of bread, this is the gluten network: a these days often maligned protein that functions in wheat breads like a balloon. Through kneading and folding bread dough, we stretch and promote gluten development, and this in turn allows the bread to hold air.

In our stories, structure is essential, both at micro and macro scales. At the level of sentences, we must consider what words to emphasize and how to make our meaning clear (while still allowing for that pearly inference), and as we move up the chain to scenes, chapters, and a work as a whole, decisions about structure take on even greater significance.

Like Water for Chocolate uses a unique structure that at first might disorient readers but in my experience proved one of the book’s most memorable elements. Esquivel opens each chapter with a recipe, usually employing traditional techniques and requiring a fair amount of foundational cooking knowledge.

Throughout the text, recipe instructions (and really, the rooster-castration episode above is one of these recipes too) are incorporated seamlessly into the text, so that the story flows easily between instruction and narration:

Remove the petals carefully from the roses, trying not to prick your fingers, for not only are the little wounds painful but the petals could soak up blood that might alter the flavor of the dish and even produce dangerous chemical reactions.

How could Tita remember such a thing, shaken as she was to get a bouquet of roses, and from Pedro besides.

Not only does gluten structure allow the bread to hold air; it also affects the shape and presentation of the final loaf. Particularly when baking with a wet dough, shaping the loaf carefully before baking will produce a good rise in the oven, while an unfolded dough will puddle in the heat, resulting in an unimpressive, albeit still delicious bread.

In our writing, we must do the same, and this shaping often occurs at the revision stage (see M.L. Davis’s great post on novel editing). We have written our scenes and developed our characters, yet so much of the final effect of our fiction rests on that next stage: the paring, the smoothing, the aligning of disparate elements. This stage is also where we are able to hone themes in the work, making statements as writers about the world.

Esquivel’s overarching cookbook structure allows her to draw connections between life and food in ways beyond simple statement, and her theme is stronger for that structure. Like Water for Chocolate is a recipe for love, for which Tita and Pedro must simmer nearly twenty years.

Ingredients

The most incredible bread I have ever eaten or baked is truly the most simple: flour, water, salt, and time. I began a sourdough starter six years ago, which I feed nightly, and the wild yeasts and bacteria that live in that soupy mixture of flour and water raise my bread. It is so simple, so old, and yet it is pure magic.

I believe fiction is magic too. Our ingredients (even in sci-fi and fantasy) are the details of life that we feel, see, hear, and read. This was a big realization for me years ago, that fiction can, indeed ought to, grow from real life, because then it will be true. I write fiction in an effort primarily to reach my heart through the voice of imagination. Writing fiction, the metaphors in my mind can become flesh for a time. Then I can see what they’re really made of.

There is nothing magic about flour and water. There is nothing magical about real life. And yet, there is. Both are transformative, in a way, if we let them be.

The story of Like Water for Chocolate is simple. It’s a story of long-unrequited love that ends finally in–no. I won’t spoil it. But Esquivel’s story includes fantasy elements, like when Tita cries tears of longing into the batter for her sister’s wedding cake, causing everyone who eats it to erupt in sadness. The magical realism here makes for a hilarious, moving, and memorable story.

Here’s a video of my husband cranking the flour mill. Like fiction, bread can be a lot of hard work!:

Leavening, enlightening

A pink cloud floated toward him, wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch. Juan-for that was the soldier’s name-abandoned the field of battle, leaving an enemy soldier not quite dead, without knowing why he did so.

A higher power was controlling his actions. He was moved by a powerful urge to arrive as quickly as possible at a meeting with someone unknown in some undetermined place. But it wasn’t hard to find. The aroma from Gertrudis’ body guided him. He got there just in time to find her racing through the field. Then he knew why he’d been drawn there.

This woman desperately needed a man to quench the red-hot fire that was raging inside her.

We may not all have revelations as titillating as Juan’s, but good fiction should be moving to the reader. It might show us something we know in a new way (check out Yari Garcia’s post about how writing interacts with contemporary issues of sexual violence – it made me think deeper about these ideas), or transport us to a world we know nothing about. It might open emotions for us or leave us caring about a character as if she is a friend.

As I have begun approaching the commercial world of fiction, I am aware of the lure of marketing constraints that seek to smooth down fiction’s sharp edges, seeking manuscripts that will sell over those that reveal. I think of Brooke Warner’s TEDx talk here. Where the advice from industrial publishing makes our writing stronger, as much of it does, I am eager to apprentice myself, but at the point it pushes back on stories that need telling, I want to resist.

In the world of bread, salability too has become the rallying cry. Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation discusses how public demand for sweet, white flour still overwhelms concerns about health and local food economies. Although whole grain foods are growing significantly in popularity (see statistics here), they still make up a fraction of most Westerners’ grain intake.

I want my fiction and my food to lift me up. I want to be filled with good ideas from which I continue to grow. It’s not that I don’t want to be entertained, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate a good, white focaccia, like the picture at the beginning of this post, but, at its heart, let’s let ourselves be truly sustained.

The recipe is a suggestion

For twenty years she had respected the pact the two of them had made with Rosaura; now she had had enough of it. Their pact consisted of taking into consideration the fact that it was vital to Rosaura to maintain the appearance that her marriage was going splendidly, and the most important thing for her was that her daughter grow up within that sacred institution, the family-the only way, she felt, to provide a firm moral foundation. Pedro and Tita had sworn to be absolutely discreet about their meetings and keep their love a secret. In the eyes of others, theirs must always be a perfectly normal family.

The dictates of industry form only a part of the rules in which we writers shroud ourselves. Avoid filter words. Cut the backstory. Never, never, ever have your character look in a mirror.

Yet the most central rule of all seems to be that, in the context of this moment in this story, you must write in the way that works best. For a lot of the time for a lot of our stories, those rules lead us right. Sometimes we choose to break them. That’s good. They are suggestions born of years’ work by our author predecessors, but they are not do-or-die edicts.

One of the most challenging elements I have been learning as a bread baker is how to trust my feeling over the recipe. Yet so many factors, from room temperature to water hardness to how active my sourdough starter is today impact the baking, that my recipe must always be taken with… fifteen grams of salt. Feeling a dough to see if it is ready to bake is not so different from rereading a paragraph to see if that expression really works, if it carries the loft I intended or cuts the gluten, letting the magic escape. It is back and forth. It is yes one day, and no the next. This is where we must learn to trust ourselves, when the rules don’t quite work. We are writers. We have it in us.

Seed bread proofing before it goes into the oven.

Where it all breaks down

Writing this piece, there’s one element I have been at a loss to compare, and that is longevity. The truth is, good bread doesn’t last long. In a day, it is stale. In a week, it has molded. Commercial bread does have this advantage over even sourdough: it’s good at staying fresh.

The best fiction, though, is largely timeless. Where a story connects with our humanity and speaks in language eloquent enough to make us stop and say, “Oh!” I believe these are things that endure, if not indefinitely, at least for a long while, until our culture has changed so much that humanity means something new.

Regardless, I think fiction has this one on the bread. Without giving away too much of the ending, here is a fitting statement from the last pages of Like Water for Chocolate: 

[T]his cookbook, which she bequeathed to me when she died… tells in each of its recipes this story of a love interred.

They say that under those ashes every kind of life flourished, making this land the most fertile in the region.

Just some food for thought. Best wishes this January,

Jimmy

Year’s End: Reflection

Nearly four years has passed since I decided I would make writing a central part of my life. It’s the end of the year. My journey as a writer has taken me deep into myself, and I am feeling more sure than I did four years ago, more than I did one year ago.

Let me start with that story, that cold February afternoon, when my husband (then boyfriend) and I made our way to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a day of artimancy.

Artimancy. The word, when I first heard it, I think it made me think of spiders. But my boyfriend had told me about his professional development session at work, where a docent had held their arm and, eyes closed, he and his colleagues had voiced aloud a question (“What can I do to be more productive this year?” “How can I be a better team member?” etc.) and then walked blind through the museum, their guide keeping them traipsing headlong through any paintings, until they felt the moment was right to open their eyes. Open them they would, and whatever artwork was in front of them they would examine for an answer to their question.

Valentine’s Day was a Saturday that year, and the museum was swarming with couples. The danger of walking into someone was significantly higher than an average day, but I closed my eyes nevertheless, and put out my arm.

I don’t remember what question I asked, but I remember pointing my finger at Taren’s proffered map, then being led to whatever mysterious corner of the museum I had indicated, up stairs, around echoing corners, light glowing pink through my eyelids, then black in the shadows. “We’re here,” he said, and cautiously I began to lead us. Where is the place? Where should I open my eyes? Here? Oh, why not. No, wait. I’ll turn, go a little farther. I remember feeling currents of air. I remember a sweaty hand.

What I remember the most was when I opened my eyes. Before me were two vases:

What did I say about them? What was I feeling? How can I say precisely now? I know that I cried, and I know my outpouring was intense. I know that it was a moment of great anxiety and clarity and intimacy. I seem to remember that in the righthand vase, I saw depth, and I saw a tree growing up the side. The lefthand vase, I think I saw superficiality in life, decoration over substance. I remember asking myself, what does it mean to live like the righthand vase? I remember a small panic inside me, clutching Taren’s hand. I remember saying, “I need writing to be a part of my life again.”

My writing journey was slow to embark, but bit by bit, I have pushed myself. I have a novel manuscript. I’m blogging. I’m trying to make this happen. It is happening.

But I want to do more. I want to write more consistently and more regularly. I am looking for ways to help myself do that. I think that will be another blog post, coming up, my goals for the new year.

In the meantime, I am revisiting that museum corridor, the high ceilings, the white walls. I am revisiting the giddiness I felt that day, wondering what people would think when they saw these two young men leading one another by the arm. And I am revisiting those two vases. I imagine that no matter what my eyes had met that day, my answer would not have been so different. The answer, after all, was inside anyway. But those vases, they are messengers, and seeing them now, they are like old friends.

Thank you, vases. I’m glad I am pursuing this path. I’ll see where it takes me.

Thank you, readers, for being a part of my journey too. I would love to hear from you, about your journeys, about your reflections. Best wishes for the last day of the year.

Jimmy

Are we there yet?: When do we call our stories done?

This is Rice Creek, a park I walked frequently during the four years I lived in Mounds View, Minnesota. During this winter’s return to the US, I had the chance to stop by Rice Creek for another walk. Many an hour did I spend here contemplating the story I am just now about to complete.

How do we know when to call our writing finished? Right now I am hurtling towards that moment when I will call my novel done. The thought is so exciting. It is the next stage in my journey, before I begin seeking publication.

Yet there are the undeniable questions associated with things done, for when I declare that I am really at last finished, after… I check old file timestamps… three years and 161 days, then I also incur a new kind of responsibility: What, precisely, will I do with it now? Who should read it? What kind of feedback will I receive? Will someone ever be interested in publishing it? There’s a significant amount of nervousness associated with these questions, for at the point the novel is done, I am saying, at least to myself, “This is what I can do. This is what I have produced, and it’s time for others to see it.”

There exist two very real pressures that I feel as I contemplate that end of this longtime project: the first is the pressure to really be done. At last, after so long, how gratifying it will feel not to file an unfinished draft away but to really say, “This is something I have done. I set out to write a novel, and I have.” I want to move on to writing something different. I want to start querying agents. I feel ready.

Yet, I feel another pressure too: the desire to tinker, to quadruple-check, and to perfect this draft until it is beyond reproach. That last bit: perfecting. That, I think, is the sticky bit. Because obviously perfection-seeking is a trap, and obviously I could fiddle for years more and still find little details, words, or sentence structures that, in that moment, call out to be changed.

Walt Whitman famously revised his Leaves of Grass continually for more than three decades, “finishing” nine editions (six of which were officially typeset and printed) and publishing the last of these only months before his death. In January 1892, the New York Herald wrote this about what was to actually be the final Leaves of Grass:

Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.

A couple of things stand out to me here: the book is finished, “so to call it.” This makes me chuckle, because I can imagine the reviewer wryly wondering if in a couple of years the paper will be asked to issue a similar statement about an 1895 edition. The other piece of this quote that resonates with me is the last bit, that Whitman is calling this latest edition “by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.” I wonder about my own poetic [or in my case, fictive] utterance. What do I want it to be?

A page of Leaves of Grass, with Whitman’s revisions. Source: the New York Public Library’s Treasures collection

What we write, and, crucially, what we write and share with others, is a part of us. What do we want that part of us to say? How will it be perceived? Publishing is a true act of self revelation, and it is understandable that we might be reluctant to relinquish the ability to revise.

Yet, to never call the novel done? That is a way of hiding. Tinkering lets us avoid potential criticism and lets us allay, for the moment, the anxieties that come with sharing our writing.

Really, perhaps, Whitman struck a middle course, publishing and sharing with impunity, and then revising the thing anyway. Nine times.

Rice Creek again, looking down the wintery path.

I’m working on a final readthrough right now. I really do think it’s the final one, at least before I start my querying process. I’m conscious of the desire to keep revising, but I really do think it’s time now. End of the year, end of this project. We’ll see where it all takes me.

Thank you for reading. I would love to hear from you. What projects are you working on? How do you decide when a piece of writing is complete? What factors do you consider?

Best wishes for Christmas, for the other day’s solstice, for your writing, life, the new year, all of it.

Jimmy

Revising for consistency: the case of the mysteriously changing hair color

I think both look pretty nice. Why must I choose?

A novel is big, literally as well as temporally. At the point I finished a complete first draft of my novel, I had an embarrassing splat of 160 thousand words and a nearly three-year distance from my first paragraphs. Revision beckoned; then it loomed. Although I had an essentially coherent story, more-or-less discernible character arcs, and even a recurring image or two, the fact remained that I didn’t have to read far to discover significant inconsistencies in character presentation (How old is she really?), world building (How does this global transportation system actually work!?), and theme.

In a large text, how do we revise for consistency? If we’re more forward-thinking, how might we write consistently as we go along?

But hold on, Jimmy. Why does consistency even matter?

Central to our work as writers is building in our audience a suspension of disbelief. For the reader to get lost in our stories, for them to fully engage, they must, if only briefly, if only indulgently, believe in the truth of what they read. Suspension of disbelief keeps readers reading—if readers are to care, then they must believe.

Does a character’s hair color really matter in the big scheme of the story? Not at all. But if readers are going to care about a character, they’ll likely need to visualize them, which requires a few physical details that don’t change. So if we do mention that hair color, we should keep it consistent. 

Logically, consistent details throughout a story will allow for better suspension of disbelief. When our stories themselves are surreal or futuristic and obviously inventions, the believability (and thus consistency) of characters and basic physical details is even more important. These become the anchors from which readers spring into the colorful wells of imagination.

So how do we revise for consistency?

In the seas of our words, how to we ferret out the places that need aligning? It’s an imposing task, even if we’re aware of inconsistencies in our writing, simply to locate them.

My first stop is generally Word’s “find” feature, magically revealing all uses of a word throughout hundreds of pages. But in truth, “find” can sometimes prove a quick-fix gimmick which we should avoid relying on too heavily. Sometimes we’ve used different words to describe something that then doesn’t pop up in our search. Sometimes jumping from moment to moment in the novel without reminding ourselves of context can cause us to make edits that don’t fit the story’s flow.

Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done but reread from the beginning. As we go, we can flag locations of sticky details we think may not remain consistent later in the story. When I felt it was at last time to address the inconsistencies in my novel (I trimmed and completed the biggest story-level revisions first), I loaded it onto my e-reader to give a more authentic reading experience where I wouldn’t be as tempted to stop and tinker. Every time I came to a mention of transportation systems, age, hair color, etc. ad nauseam, I made a brief note. Now back at the computer, I’m able to search the much more scannable set of notes and know I’m not missing any. 

I ended up with a lot of comments during my readthrough, from typos to further cuts to determining the location of a particular window that sometimes seems to face east and sometimes west.

Hair color might be easy to make consistent. It can be trickier to change details when we had clear reasons for the original choices. On my reread, I came across an annoyingly mobile window through which my protagonist frequently peered. It variously points east, showing the ocean, and then other times west, for the sunset. I’m currently in a slight conundrum, trying to make a choice. Short of uprooting my character and moving her across the island, her window simply can’t show both, yet the ocean and sunset are serving meaningful roles symbolically that I am loathe to abandon.

The challenge will ultimately be to find some other route to the meaning carried by one symbol, allowing me to restore consistency. And really, in the end, perhaps this is not so bad, as it is forcing me to reexamine my choices, to find a way to express ideas within constraints of the form. A teacher once suggested that the strict form requirements of a sonnet actually improve creativity, because the writer can’t rely on usual modes of expression; they must instead find new words that will fit the form. So it is with our fiction: restoring consistency can mean a loss of meaningful or even cherished elements, but perhaps that with which we replace them will be gold.

Writing consistently from the beginning

As gratifying as combing the story for all mentions of the character’s hair color might be, wouldn’t it be easier if it were just set from the very beginning? This is a question that very rapidly spirals us into the eternal debate of how much we plan before we write. This is a huge topic, one I’m not going to explore much here. I’m sure that many a future post will find its way there. It is true that copious character notes and diagrams of window locations can promote consistency, yet at least to me, I find the act of writing fluid enough in the moment that I don’t think I would probably use those notes even if I had them, and we all know that things change as we write, even with a detailed plan. I think for now, I will be stuck with panning my words for these mysterious inconsistencies, playing with their significance, and ultimately smoothing them out into a more believable, hopefully stronger story.

What are your experiences with consistency in fiction? To what extent do you insist on it, and how do you do so? Looking forward to hearing from you, and best wishes for your writing and for everything else. I’ll be finding a few minutes here and there as I’m traveling these next couple of weeks to iron out my global transportation system, and those pesky hair colors. We’ll see how it goes.

Fiction and reality, monkeys in Billings

The land here is dry. The leafy tendrils I saw from the airplane, riverbeds, I imagined, are really more of folds in the rock, like the skin of a naked cat around the haunches. Earth muscles, they make me think of. It’s December, and a bit of early winter snow remains , but mostly it is the sparse, yellow fur of dry grass that runs along the cliffs.

These cliffs are called “the rims” here in Billings and are your proverbial car-park-romantic-movie-scene-kiss kind of overlook. The city hugs them, then springboards out across the valley, so that everywhere you are in town, the rims stand out jagged and bright in the sun above you. It feels like the edge of a desert.

The rims, yesterday, mid-afternoon.

I’ve found a little writing time today. It’s been a while. Weeks. The end of term, marking essays, calculating grades, emails, travel preparations, the stymying tiredness at the ends of the days. A lot of Star Trek and chocolate in the evenings, I’ll confess. When I don’t write for a while, I feel meaningfulness begin slipping away. The listlessness, no matter what I find myself doing, seeps back in.

Over the course of a couple days about a month ago, I spilled out fifteen-hundred words of a short story. My norm for the last few years has been science fiction, but this story is very rooted in reality. The inspiration was a dinner with friends, and I found myself all but retelling real events, to the extent that the characters will be embarrassingly recognizable.

A benefit was that the writing flew, much more easily than has the sci-fi. A tweak here or there, a point-of-view character not my own, sure, but really I’m writing from memory rather than any carefully-constructed imagination. It has me wondering today about the role of the real in fiction, and how much literal reality fiction can accommodate before the term no longer fits.

The land reminds me more of Morocco than anything. It’s funny how it feels strange to say that, as culturally the two places could scarcely differ more. But I am remembering a long drive through the mountains south of Fez, winding by red rocks and thick gorse. Except, I remember now, there were monkeys in those hills. Prairie dogs excavating the undeveloped lots of Billings.

My instinct is to tell me that all fiction, including fantasy and science fiction, is just as rooted in reality as a retelling, that both are, as James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, “harrowingly truthful.” But it also feels a bit like cheating, or at least less creative, to crib so much from real events and real people.

But then, what could be a more fertile garden for story than a rich reality? My sci-fi novel is, when it comes down to it, plucked from reality too—how societies work, research about artificial intelligence, my own experience with depression—perhaps it’s really the recognizability that has me feeling vulnerable here. How would the real people I depict react to reading this? How might they question my representation?

So perhaps my question is really more one of self-consciousness. The muscles of the story are more exposed, bared of fur, clearly carved riverbeds of thought. I know that all fiction is a revealing, somehow, of the self. That is the task, perhaps, to reveal boldly anyway.