Monday, April 03, 2006

"Storyteller" by Kate Wilhelm

This book was very slim, but took me a surprisingly long time to get through. For most of it I was just slogging through it, because a lot of it was simply the same ol' writing advice that I've read before. I find that a writer should only have five, six books on how to write, tops, because sooner or later they all start to say the same things.

Storyteller's brief moments of interest came from discussing what was done at Clarion, the workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers that is taught by experienced sci-fi and fantasy writers. That's what this book was about: writing lessons from Clarion. I've heard all the lessons before, but I guess now I know what to expect if I apply for a Clarion workshop - lots of watergun fights, bitching, harsh criticism, and virgin sacrificing.

There was an interesting part where Kate Wilhelm talked about being clear about who the characters are at the beginning - the readers get this image of the character in their heads pretty quickly, and they don't like being deceived. So, she discourages stories about characters who turn out to be dogs or lampshades, or dead. That's actually quite funny, because in the Creative Writing class I've been taking, SO MANY of the stories have little twists like that - one started out like a woman who's brutally abused by her controlling husband, but turns out to be a cat who bitches about not getting fed all the time. Two stories were about depressed girls who turn out to be suicides at the very end. One was about a rock star who discovers the girl of his dreams but then gets hit by a car out of the blue and dies. One story was about a guy studying for a Ph.D studying Margaret Atwood, who's visited by a psychotic delusion of Margaret Atwood, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he shouldn't be studying her books because he hates them and should get on with his life.

My only guess as to the frequency of the "twist ending" in our stories (and I'm no exception - "Whiff" is supposed to have a jump at the end, but in my defense I do leave clues and it IS supposed to be a sci-fi mystery) is that many of us don't know how to make short stories interesting with the little space we are allowed, so a twist at the end is devised to give a giant boost to the Cool-O-Meter. Hmmm...

One awesome point made by Storyteller is that there are two kinds of writers: there are wordsmiths, who focus on beautiful, poetic sentences and creative language but can have trouble with plotting and narrative; and there are storytellers - who focus on the narrative, sometimes to the detriment of their language. The best writers are a little bit of both.

I think I'm more of a storyteller, I like cool plots and interesting problems and characters. I also read books and stories for plots, and become frustrated if a story doesn't have a narrative I can make out. However, there is a bit of a wordsmith in me - after reading almost nothing but epic fantasies trilogies, I was bored reading Charles De Lint's Moonheart because I found the language dull compared to the flowery stuff I was used to.

Still, I find I can apply the "wordsmith" and "storyteller" label to the other students in my class. There's this one guy who gets on my nerves - he has long hair that is a surprisingly natural and bright gold colour that I've rarely seen on real people, and gives off a deceptively hippie-slacker vibe. He's always talking about reading Kerouac and listening to Bob Dylan, and handed in a story where nothing happened. Well, that's not true - "stuff" happened. But that was all it was - "stuff". He used very beautiful and interesting figures of speech, but his story went nowhere.

A guy gets a call from a friend, goes driving, bitches about traffic laws, goes to a bar and talks pseudo-intellectually about drunken behaviour, shacks up with a girl he likes, and goes home. That's it. I did not like his story at all - the Storyteller deeply ingrained in the Writing portion of my brain was offended by it, was angry at having to read it without the pay-off of a climax or a relevation or an exciting event. The Storyteller in me felt cheated. This isn't a story! It's only half a story - what was so relevant about this one night at a bar that it got a whole 2500 words devoted to it?

The other students said positive thing about it being "a slice of life", and "so real" and "this is how real life is like", and "real life doesn't have conflicts like stories do". Where the hell do you live, people? I live in a sheltered upperclass suburb, and I can find conflict! There's a reason stories aren't written about people making toast because they love toast, and then they eat the toast and they're happy. There's a reason stories are written about people who make toast because eating it with jam reminds them of a dead girlfriend, or they have to make toast because they have four kids to feed before they all rush off to school or work or whatever. Gah! I was angry at this guy for wasting my time with a story that, he claimed, was about the character's "duality" between art and real life (*cough*pretentious*cough*), and I was angry that all other students were nodding their heads and telling him how good it was. Fine, write that way, if it makes you happy. But good luck finding a guy who'll publish it! I mean, the thought going through my head at the time was He's a good writer, but he's never going to learn and become a great writer if people let him get away with pieces of crap like that!

I learned later from another fellow classmate that this same guy writes really, really good poetry. Well then - he's a wordsmith. Of course he doesn't focus on the narrative, because he doesn't give a crap about narrative - he cares about words. He cares about language. He constructs metaphors about hurricanes and keys to lost doors, and the Wordsmith in his brain is satified by it. The Storyteller in my brain eats through the varnish of his prose and finds nothing behind it, and goes away hungry and complaining. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

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