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From Thesis to Synthesis

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Author: ShadowWolf

Writing is a grand paradox. In no other artform is the process as unconstrained and yet so restrictive as when a person sits down to write a story. But no matter what you're writing, fiction or not, there are forms and styles that are used, rules that are followed. But I am not writing to speak of the rules that govern language (even though those rules are in contention even as I write this essay). Rather, my topic is a serious problem which has been the downfall of many a newly-minted author.

The start of the process takes many forms; for some it may come as an all-encompassing flash of inspiration, while others may just have the barest hint of an idea. But however it begins, there is a feeling of euphoria as the words appear on the page and the images in the author's mind are thereby transmitted into the mind of the reader. The author is certain that the much dreaded malady of 'writers block' will not strike this time, no matter how often it has in the past.

Then the next day of writing begins. Now that the initial burst of inspiration is gone, the process becomes that much more difficult. In my writing, this is the point at which I re-read and re-write much of what I had written. This is because writing has become a two-stage process for me -- the initial paragraphs and pages I write are a mere sketch, an outline of the story to come.

By the time the first week is over the author is usually facing writer's block. This is a time of deep depression and, for some, heightened emotions. When writer's block is finally conquered the author hits another emotional high, almost the same as the high that started the writing, and the words once more flow -- in some cases, so rapidly that authors can actually lose entire phrases as the writing hands struggle to keep pace with the torrential rain of words. Usually this high lasts only a few days, after which the author can be so emotionally attached to the narrative that nothing can dissuade him from completing the work. During this time the author may also become so emotionally tied to characters in the story that he may begin talking, thinking or even acting like them. This is one reason why I can be heard to wonder if all authors are insane. I can think of several good friends of mine, also amateur authors, who have complained that a character who is going through highly painful or emotional experiences in the story, simply refuses to be written about.

There is no 'one true way' of telling of a tale, and every good author has their own tricks and techniques they use when they write. Note that I said "good authors", because there are many poseurs -- people who claim to be authors but have no idea of what real writing is. There are also people who know how to write but cannot achieve the professional distance needed to withstand the assault of criticism from others. This distance is needed, especially if the author hopes to publish his works, because the first stop for any work arriving at a publishing house (after being accepted for publication) is the desk of an editor whose job it is to fix all the problems found. Good editors, those that can be politic in their criticism, are rare, and some can be very harsh. The so-called "good authors", while they may not always seem to at first, accept the criticism and understand that it is to make the narrative better.

Publishers employ three distinct types of 'critics' to review any work they accept for publishing:

  1. Experts: Not always consulted, but when they are, they verify anything stated as a fact in the narrative. Their changes and suggestions are generally minor, and usually only affect a 'non-fiction' work.
  2. Lawyers: Always consulted -- and not known for being nice. A lawyer is part of almost any editing process, if only to ensure that the work contains no plagiarized material and that the manuscript is free from passages that could lead to legal action.
  3. Editors: These much-maligned people do almost as much work on the manuscript as the author. An editor's job is to provide a second opinion on what does or doesn't work in the story, make sure that the narrative moves at a proper pace, contains no gross grammatical or syntactical errors, and is the best it can possibly be.

Inability to accept criticism at all: This is the 'downfall of many a newly-minted author' I mentioned above. It's a problem serious enough to cause even the most rational of people to act without maturity or restraint, and in extreme cases can cause people to become so deeply offended that they step outside the normal social mores of their group and wind up ostracized. This can be no better demonstrated than by what is called 'The Slaughterhouse Episode'.

On October 1, 1999 Keith Morrison, the man behind the sarcastic-criticism site The Slaughterhouse posted a review of Oren the Otter's story Conscientious Objection. Oren's response was inflammatory; understandably so, since the format used by The Slaughterhouse was that of the popular schlock-dissecting TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, while Oren's anger was understandable, his reaction was grossly out of proportion to the initial 'offense'. Oren was unable to take the criticism; he lost his temper and not only attacked Keith Morrison, but everyone who asked him to keep the argument off the TSA-Talk mailing list. The whole affair grew to become rather unpleasant, and in the end, Oren removed himself from TSA-Talk before Thomas Hassan, the man who started the list and founded the 'Transformation Stories Archive' (the TSA in TSA-Talk), got around to doing it for him.

The inability to maintain a professional distance from a work, so that criticism can be used and understood, is another facet of this problem. Case in point: What happened to Michael Bard, a good friend and one of the editors of the 'zine TSAT. In 1994, Bard wrote a short story entitled Will of the Goddess and submitted it to a magazine for publication. The magazine sent the story back along with a one-word rejection letter: 'Juvenile'. For years Bard didn't understand the reason for that simple rejection, and it even stopped him from writing for five years. A few months ago, he and I were talking about publishing and he mentioned the story, and even provided a link to a version of it online. It didn't take me long to spot the problem, and it was, indeed, a problem that often occurs in stuff a juvenile writes -- he started each sentence the same way and each sentence had the same pacing, which led to a story that was difficult to read due to the very stilted structure of the tale. Bard was stunned when I mentioned this to him, because he hadn't noticed it until then.

The editing of a story is the most trying time for an author. This, I know from personal experience: I have recently finished the final story in a three-story arc and handed it over to another good friend of mine -- Quentin Long, TSAT's other editor -- for polishing. Long worked wonders on this trilogy's first two parts, helping me take them from a crude and raw state to the highly polished gems they are. But seeing my work torn apart, with passages I loved marked as needing re-writing or removal, was hard to handle. However, the resulting improvement in the stories was worth the emotional pain involved in making all those changes.

Unfortunately, I am now in an uncomfortable position: The third story has turned out so miserably lacking that I'm probably going to have to rewrite it from scratch. Not only did I make a bad mistake in deciding to limit the story series to three parts, but also in trying to tackle the hardest part of the story I made so many mistakes I killed the narrative. The problem is that, in the first two stories in the arc I made the main character a tough, larger-than-life hero and in the final story I am left with the task of tearing down that image and replacing it with an image of a person who was so fixated on day-to-day issues of immediate significance that he completely missed the larger consequences of what he was doing. But all I really managed to do was write a juvenile story so filled with Deus Ex Machina that I don't think I have enough skill as an author to be able to use Long's suggestions to polish it into something that wouldn't look out of place alongside the first two parts.

I mention this as an example of why every author should seek out an editor they can work with. A good example of this from the world of published works is the novel I just finished reading, James Michener's The Novel. That narrative is in a style quite different from any other Michener works I have read, but its clarity of style lends itself well to dissection by the trained eye. In that novel I can point out entire sections that probably didn't exist in the original manuscript, and the novel would not be as fun to read or as wonderful a work if those passages were removed.

The difference in style from his other works is clearly intentional. I mention this because Michener has done something that is extremely difficult to do: In The Novel he has written himself into the narrative and, for good or ill, used several topics presented in the novel to show his reason for doing this. And he did it all to thumb his nose at the literati by writing a novel that, at one and the same time, managed to carry on their beloved 'intellectual discourse' while also being a book that any literate person could enjoy.

And that, in the end, is what a good author is after when he births a new novel. A novel that sells well so that he can focus on writing, not on making sure he has enough to eat. The end of the initial period of writing is generally a scary time for an author, but the inevitable rewriting that comes as part of the editing process often acts as a catharsis. It not only prepares the author for the criticism to come, it partially shields him from it with the knowledge that the story is as perfect as it can be made.

No best-selling author got there alone. They all have editors and critics that review their work and help them polish it into the shining examples of literature that finally make it into the readers hands. So if you want to be an author, a good author, then you have to listen to criticism. Otherwise your skill will never increase and you'll soon be forgotten. Just remember that criticism is an opinion, and while some people try to coat their opinions with a patina of authority, it's still just their opinions. And also keep in mind that, unless the person critiquing says otherwise, it's about your story, not about you. But no matter the specifics just nod, smile and thank the critiquer. Then think about what they've said, use what you like and your writing will keep improving.