Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Joy of Imperfection, and ROW80 Begins!

ROW80 begins on Monday -- see the updates at the bottom.

The Magic of Imperfection

Kris Rusch had some great things to say about excessive perfectionism in her "Business Rusch" post this week.  While she had her own major points, the one I came away with was a variation on the old business saying: good is the enemy of great.  That is, when we strive to do things the "right" way, we kill the creativity that makes things rise above the norm.

Perfection kills unique. It kills quirk and unexpectedness.  To put it another way, the perfect potato chip never looks like the Virgin Mary or like Elvis.  When was the last time you saw a perfect potato chip go on eBay for $5000?

I have come across so many variations this theme lately.  One of the reasons I didn't make my goal Thursday was because I went to see Wicked, the musical based on the book which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's point of view.  The theme is ... Defy Gravity.  That is, defy convention.

Perfection is all about convention.  To be perfect means to be conventional.

Kris used an example of Shakespeare's Midsommer Night's Dream, which has three endings. One ending would do just fine for that play.  And yet, if we were to cut off the most unnecessary ending, we'd lose a great moment in literature.  That's not a good thing.

This is why I so dispise the advice "Kill your darlings."  Noooo!  Nurture your darlings. Your darlings are what makes your work yours.  I don't care if they are wild purple prose, or insipid sentiment, or if they dwell on boring technical stuff:  If you get a charge out of it, keep after it until you can do it well.

Don't hide your light under a barrel of convention.  Even if your light is a little garish and weird looking right now.  Let it shine. bring this back to what I'm doing, and today's update: one of the sub-points in the post was the idea of limiting rewrites.  A story is never perfect.  You will never be done if you strive for perfection.  Pick a time and declare it done.

I made a comment on Kris' post that I found this serial - with its twice a week deadlines - did that for me.  Deadlines make you stop where you are and just hand it in.  It's like term paper due dates.  And as with those term papers, an approaching deadline makes you stop fussing over perfection and go after substance.

Kris had an interesting (and gratifying) response: She pointed out that 600 word fiction is a really difficult length. Even if it's not a whole story.  She was impressed with doing it once a week, let alone doing it twice.

She's right: It is difficult.  Just like the limits Alfred Hitchcock placed on himself were sometimes very limiting.  It forces you to be creative, and develop your skills....

But it also does something else: it frees you from convention.  You only have time for your light, not for the barrel.

That's the magic of frequent small deadlines.  But it's also true that it forces you to learn a lot.  For instance....

The Fabulous Thing About Imperfections and Serials

The story I'm writing is going to be longer than I thought.

Well, this story -- that is, this plot arc in which Alex has to rescue Thorny and get him back home, preferably before he's sober enough to know what happened -- will be a little longer.  But I intended this story stand alone and introduce the world for the giant plot arc of another series of stories.

But this story is turning out to be an alien pod, full of the seeds for other stories, ones that will happen before the arc I'm setting up.

And what is the nature of those seeds?

The imperfections that crop up from writing and posting to deadline.

This is in the nature of a real serial, as opposed to a serialized novel.  Every dissatisfying little side moment, every minor red herring, is a seed for a whole new story.  I will give you the example of the difference between The Dain Curse and The Big Sleep.

They say that years after Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, people asked him "So who did kill the chauffeur?"  And he didn't know.  It was an oversight.  He had twisted the story several times and overlooked the fact that he'd made it impossible for any of the revealed culprits to have done it.  Oh, well.  You only notice it if you actually sit down and parse out the whole thing afterward.  It seems clear while you're reading it.

All mysteries -- heck all stories -- have discrepancies.  We strive to clean up the obvious ones, or sometimes, if we see them early enough, we use them in the plot.  But an awful lot of them are just mistakes to be overlooked.

I don't know how Dashiell Hammett came up with the twists and turns of The Dain Curse, but I do know that the way it's laid out, it's a perfect model for using imperfections to launch more story.

In it, the Continental Op is hired, and wraps up his case completely in the first act.  He solves the crime, fully and accurately.  The first act stands alone as a story in and of itself.

But as he leaves the case behind, he knows there is a discrepancy.  He wasn't wrong about his solution at all, but that there is something else going on, another story yet to tell.  And by golly, he is called in again to deal with a problem related to the Dain family.

This is what a lot of serials were like in the old days, especially in silent film.  They did not use the classic "stay tuned" cliffhanger endings that became popular later.  Instead, each story was complete, but it often also had a teaser that hooked you into the next story.

And for that kind of story, the unexplained imperfection is an ideal hook.  Audiences notice imperfections.  But pulp fiction, and film, was quickly created, and full of discrepancies.  The audience was used to overlooking them... but they still notice.  And if the author picks up on that mistake and says "By the way, I noticed that too and I'm going to follow up," it's like a credit cookie.  It's a reward.

It can still be satisfying even if the author doesn't notice in time to make it an intentional hook.

A serial has the magical property that it creates imperfections by nature of having deadlines.  And it also, because of the need for more episodes later, gives a natural place to put those new stories.

If The Big Sleep had been a comic strip, for instance, with the need for a new episode day after day, it would be natural to pick up the story of who killed the chauffeur after the novel was over.  It would be a separate plot arc, so it wouldn't have to affect the previous story at all. It would be a new story, involving other suspects. (Because obviously he wasn't killed for anything to do with the events in The Big Sleep.)

This story -- the one I'm writing now -- has lots of little hooks.  Some of them I will follow up within the story, but those that don't fit... they're waving their little hands, begging to be turned into stories of their own. 

I blame Rozinshura for this.  Or maybe Lady Featherdale (who will introduce herself on Thursday).  Both of them are interfering types, who like to change the course of fate.  Rozinshura, though, is less likely to leave fingerprints behind.

But in the meantime, I've got to get back to this story.

See you in the funny papers.

The Case of the Misplaced Hero is still available to read in its original serial form, and also as a novella-length ebook. Check it out on the intro page here.


Shelley Koon said...

Great post on imperfection and so true that we kill creativity when we strive for it. I fall victim of this quite often in my writing. Thanks for the reminder to just let it flow!

The Daring Novelist said...

Most of us have to discover this over and over again. Humans are funny that way....