Happy Easter to all. I took a day from the long weekend to just kick back and dawdle through some plot and character stuff for my novel. Nothing hard or intense. Just art for art’s sake. It was pretty restorative.
I like to think this proves I’m not all about the crazy systematic organisation I hint at here from time to time. Often, like today, I just open my novel’s Scrivener project, create a folder to play in, and try something new I’ve read about or seen or YouTube, and consider it a win if throws up one or two things I can transfer to my plot, setting, or character folders.
What I went with today wasn’t even as directed as that. I borrowed from a video from Ellen Brock’s YouTube channel and just wrote up a synopsis of the novel based on what I already know, to get it all in one place where I could see what was missing.
The activity took a while, as I didn’t hurry. In the end, it showed me I was short on characters and arcs–I had a surprising number of potential scenes, but very little connective tissue.
So, I picked a goal and suitable arc for one of the secondary characters that bound together and motivated a number of scenes. I also created a new secondary character, a friend for the protagonist but one whose arc unintentionally torpedoes the protagonist’s main goal and propels him into the climax.
Once I plugged the new material into the bare synopsis, it spruced things up quite a bit, and was deeply satisfying.
This post–one of a series connecting my research side (sociology) to my fiction writing side (a high fantasy novel presently entitled Remnant Magic)–discusses ways that sociology’s identity theory can help with character creation. Using identity theory can make characters, arcs, and conflict more complex and root them more organically in how humans interact with each other and society.
What Was Bugging Me
Lately, I’ve been feeling the gravitational pull of the vast mass of writing I’m not doing. I’ve been busy getting the PhD and associated research up and running, so I don’t (entirely) begrudge my lack of writing, and yet… I’m never not aware of it, either.
You often hear at the start of a PhD that you need to treat it as your job. Schedule it. Do the hours. Don’t procrastinate. It’s good advice. But it got me thinking that a lot of people write with a full-time job—the PhD is a good excuse but not an iron-clad one. So, while I was scheduling, I scheduled some writing time and decided I would use it to write my first novel.
Early on, I was brainstorming my protagonist’s motives/stakes, as described across a number of videos presented by writer Rachael Stephen on her YouTube channel.
What did my protagonist want or need?
My novel idea had come to me as a character fragment, so I knew, roughly. He’d been expected to be very successful during his adolescence, but hadn’t been—and he found himself an adult without ability, success, or prospects. The novel follows his efforts to find out what went wrong. That makes for a clear enough character goal, but I wanted to brainstorm a few more wants/needs to apply towards subplots and gave it a red hot go.
Nothing I brainstormed had any kind of personal or narrative specificity. Sure, he might want to go to the Moon; he might want anything at this point. Though I’d done a little worldbuilding, I didn’t know enough about him or his place in the world to constrain his choices, making the products of my brainstorming too random to be useful. Clearly, I needed more worldbuilding. I just wasn’t ready to go full-Tolkien, yet. I asked myself, what was the least amount of my world I could build to yield the most information about what my protagonist wanted? It occurred to me identity theory—which is fairly central to my PhD research—suggested a helpful answer.
A (Very) Brief Summary of Identity Theory
Identity theory is a substantial collection of ideas about how individuals become who they are as they interact under the influence of society and how those interactions go on to shape society in return. The theory belongs to the sociological perspective known as symbolic interactionism, which originated in the early twentieth century with theorists such as Charles Cooley, George Mead, and Herbert Blumer.
Cooley shared the idea of the “looking glass self”—who we are was the product of how we believed we were seen by the people who mattered to us and how we responded to the feelings our beliefs aroused in us, such as pride or shame.
Mead saw society as a constantly evolving structure comprising solutions to group problems. The self was a product of interaction within society. As the self allowed an individual to understand and adapt to how others saw them, it was a necessary tool for the cooperation which, in solving shared problems, created society. As it’s often put, society creates self creates society.
Blumer gathered these and other views into a perspective he formalised and named symbolic interactionism. The name reflected his assertion that society was made up of interaction, and interaction was guided by shared meanings—symbols. Individuals assembled those symbols into a self. Consider how people informed by feminism or notions of chivalry might differently see the meaning of a woman approaching a closed door—and how the consequent behaviour of each would reflect who they are and who society expects them to be. Over time, social interaction changed shared meanings, expectations, and behaviours, and, collectively, the society made up of those things, which shaped the selves coming into being in that society in new ways. For Blumer, because society and the self caused each other, neither had greater meaning or importance than the other.
Identity theory, developed by Sheldon Stryker, took this base and formalised it even further, intending to make all these ideas more useful in making theories about how society and human interaction worked. Stryker positioned his theory in something he called structural symbolic interactionism, which assumed that society and the self weren’t equal—society came first. People were born into societies, and their identities developed within structures of power, economics, and every kind of inequality. These structures differentiated society such that people couldn’t be said to interact “within society”. Rather, they interacted within the relatively small social groups to which they had access, within roles defined by those group—limiting the change that could be worked through interaction.
According to identity theory:
Each of us has a self made up of multiple identities, roughly at least one identity for each social group to which we belong—we might be any or all of a Student, a Parent, a Worker, a Patient, or countless others.
Our social groups are made up of roles—positions within the group associated with a set of expectations and meanings—a Worker must value punctuality, honesty, hierarchy, the will of customers, and behave accordingly.
An identity is just a set of role expectations, and associated meanings, that we’ve taken into our self.
Each of our identities has a quality called salience—how significant it is to us generally and in any given situation.
The strength of our ties to a social group, the importance of their judgements of us, the severity of the costs to us if we lose face in front of them, add up to our commitment to that group—identities associated with high commitment tend to have the strongest salience.
Our identities are organised into a salience hierarchy, high to low—a high salience identity has a greater chance of shaping our behaviour than a lower salience one.
Our self still comes into existence through our perception of our social interactions. But that self is made up of a number of identities, each created by our performance of roles that satisfy the expectations of particular social groups. When we enter a social situation, we judge what’s going on using the meanings and expectations of the identities in our salience hierarchy, the most salient identity is chosen, and our behaviour in the situation proceeds accordingly.
Someone happening upon a child crying by the side of the road will understand the situation and respond differently depending on the identity which has the most salience to them at that moment. A parent might nurture. A police officer might investigate or bring the child into the system. A bully might push them over and walk on laughing. If their self boasted all three identities, then their commitment to the social group behind each one would create a salience hierarchy, and the most salient identity would win the day.
Applying All That To Creating Characters
So, there I was, trying to work out the minimum worldbuilding I could do situate my protagonist in his world enough that I could work out what motivates him.
Identity theory is helpful here because what an individual wants and how that shapes what they do is the key concern of the theory. The answer it provides is also pretty simple. What does my protagonist want? Well, to what social groups does your protagonist belong? What roles exist within those groups? To which groups are they most committed through important social ties and severe consequences if they fail to meet role expectations?
With those questions in mind, I went to my worldbuilding documents in Scrivener and determined what social groups were implied in what I’d already come up with. For example, my protagonist belonged to an organised group of magic-users. I developed that group in more detail, including roles and expectations associated with various factions. I brainstormed groups in broader society that would support or oppose the magic-users or any of their factions. That led to the creation of various political, religious, and socioeconomic groups, and their factions, roles, and expectations. I refrained from too much detail, at this stage—just enough to give me a basic understanding.
I returned to my character brainstorming. What did my main character want? I’d thought he wanted to know what went wrong with his adolescence. But that desire grew from his high commitment to the social group that had expected great things of him and rejected him when great things hadn’t materialised. What he really wanted was to earn his way back into that high commitment group. Since they weren’t, strictly, worth his time, the fact that he wanted this so badly at the start of the novel implied his character arc—an internal shift from believing he’s no one if he’s rejected by that group to a realisation that he belongs to a better group now, and that group deserves his loyalty.
Narratively, identity theory suggests I should create scenes that diminish his ties with the first group and increase his ties to the second group (and the consequences if he loses face before them). And I will, going forward.
At the same time, I was now able to establish other identities residing in the protagonist’s self. His father is problematic in the plot, and so “son” will have salience in a number of scenes—and shedding his commitment to that identity will also be crucial to the outcome. He also has identities associated with religion and with a group of outcasts. Each of those identities suggested smaller arcs shifting his levels of commitment and shuffling his salience hierarchy.
He’s become a more complex character than he might otherwise have been, as he now has a range of identities that might be the most salient in any of the situations he encounters. While I’d have arrived in a similar place by writing up a character biography or resume, this method was more systematic and, in my opinion, produced a clearer and more intentional sense of the relationships between aspects of his character and their relationships to his position within different areas of his world.
Protagonist vs Antagonist, Protagonist vs Protagonist
I applied the same process to my antagonist, with similar results.
In doing so, I noted that conflict between the antagonist and protagonist could be found in their commitment to incompatible social groups, or to roles within individual groups that had incompatible role expectations. For example, the antagonist’s highest commitment is to a role within a group that values ends over means, while the protagonist belongs to one that most highly values good works in pursuit of duty. In shared situations were those identities are salient to each of them, conflict is inevitable.
The same applies to a single character and internal conflict. When the identities in a character’s salience hierarchy are associated with incompatible role expectations, then situations invoking those identities will put the character in conflict with themselves. Reconciling those incompatibilities or shedding one of the identities becomes the basis for a character arc.
I can only hope any of that proves useful. I found it so, and it’s enough, really, if I’ve only managed to contribute something to my own process. But I put it here, just in case. Do let me know if you find it a helpful perspective.
In tarot, the Wheel of Fortune card (glance to your left) is a reminder that we’re all bound to a wheel that never stops turning. On top today, bereft tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow… who knows? Change is the only constant.
The wheel has spun wildly for me all year. In some respects, it’s been one of the worst years I can recall. The whole world has seemed deranged at times, but there have also been some hard-to-bear personal catastrophes. Yet, I also finished my BA Honours (Sociology) halfway through the year with a killer grade that reflected hard work and the support of an awesome advisor and lecturers. Towards the end of the year, I was also accepted into JCU’s PhD program starting (very soon) in 2019. What’s more, I was awarded a really generous scholarship.
Oddly, given some of the stuff that’s been going on, as I look back on the year, it’s the lack of writing progress that stings. I keep trying to establish a routine, improve my skills, level up—and I keep sacrificing writing to my other priorities and remaining, frustratingly, fairly static in the skills department. And, apart from a close call or two early in the year, no sales!
As I embark on my PhD research, it seems clear I’m going to have to master the whole competing priorities thing once and for all if my writing is to stand a chance. Based on history, if I were my writing right now, I’d be feeling a wee bit nervous.
Still, positive thinking types are fond of telling us that giving up is the only failure, so I’m thinking not giving up is step one. So that’s the first thing on my 2019 to-do list, and I’ve ticked it off.
For many years, I’ve focused on short stories because I suspected they were friendlier to a time-poor schedule. Also, I’ve felt I needed to crack short fiction before really trying a novel. I begin to suspect neither of those things is true—and if I don’t make a serious effort to produce a novel soon, I never will, and that would be a sizable deathbed regret. Memento mori, and all that. So, I decided on a concrete goal:
In 2019 I will write the first draft of a novel.
For accountability, I’ll post here a little more often, writing about what happens the goal (and the PhD research, and life) come into contact with the aforementioned Wheel. (Don’t think about roadkill. Don’t think about road kill. Dang.)
I’m well-overdue to touch base with my blogging. It feels like days to me, it must be said, and yet it’s getting on for fourth months. I’ve lost a blogging season! So, back when the year was young, I banged on about embracing organisation. How’d that go?
Middling. What I gained on the swings I lost on the roundabouts. My uni work—researching and writing up a thesis for my honours year in sociology, which completes at the end of this semester—stayed organised and has gone according to plan. It’s taken some hard work, with more yet to come. This semester, most of the assessment happens close to the end, right when the thesis itself is due, so it’s been a lot like sprinting towards the mountain to be sure you’re there when the avalanche hits.
But the positive side is that I’m currently ten thousand or so words into the thesis and on schedule.
My fiction writing did less well. At first, I observed the writing schedule and managed to write one short story of 8,000ish words and was glad to have done so. After that, I needed to borrow time for uni deadlines, mostly, and the odd life crisis, and as things proceeded, it became easier to give up the blocked out writing time. (Which, as an explanatory note, included time put aside to update this blog.)
I don’t entirely hold it against myself. I do have obligations to meet and the time has to come from somewhere. I’m the only one who suffers when I don’t write and that makes writing the natural target when time is short. But I do feel… I want to say a wistful pang, but it feels more like that time I tried to pass a gallstone the size of a golf ball.
Still, it’s not all red ink in the writing ledger. It’s important to remind yourself of that, I think. I’ve written 10,000 words of the thesis. That constitutes a substantial chunk of an entirely unfamiliar genre of non-fiction writing. That’s also included taking feedback from my thesis supervisor and rewriting. The aforementioned 8,000ish SF story may only be partway to my original fiction writing goal, but it’s not nothing. There’s still another 5,000 words of the thesis to be written, and 6,000 words of additional assessment split between an essay and script for a presentation summarising my research. Research itself is a transferable skill for writers, as is the discipline of sitting in the chair and producing words to a deadline.
I’ve also been nibbling around the edges of writing. Reading articles and blog posts on the craft and business side of things, and listening to my favourite podcasts, such as Writing Excuses. I’ve jotted down a few notes and ideas. It’s not enough to quiet the bellowing of my “wistful pang”, but it’s something.
The lesson, I suppose, is to organise, and do your best, yet recognise that there will always be trade-offs. And I can still hope to do better.
Granted, “directions & timetables” sounds like the world’s dullest fantasy role-playing game. (Though, in this game I’m pretty sure my character class would be a half-orc perfectionist/procrastinator with an alignment of chaotic indecision.) Still, it’s actually a fairly straightforward description of what I’ve been up do.
In my last couple of blog posts I was concerned that my writing had been directionless. I’d picked novel writing as a direction and set out with the determination to tick that bucket list item within an inch of its life.
Of course, at that time, I was very much in the midst of my end of year break from university—to the extent that such things exist while working your way through an honours year, when you really ought to be working on the terrifying Lego of your thesis whether a semester is officially unfolding or not. I was simply procrastinating my thesis and exercising my denial superpower to pretend I could make writing-goal decisions in isolation. Well, ha.
As 2017 shuffled towards its inevitable anti-climax and 2018 promised to haul itself from the radioactive meltdown of the old year to begin its own rampage, ignoring my thesis by covering my eyes and pretending I was invisible proved less and less practical. At the same time, my efforts to pull together a novel-writing project hit a weird, writers-blocky paralysis that was both frustrating and depressing.
I feel foolish in hindsight, because it is my experience that an inability to write is most often rooted in a subconscious awareness that you’ve taken a wrong step, which shuts you down until you walk it back to the point of divergence and course-correct. But, I didn’t understand the problem at the time, and it did contribute its own sour flavour to a fairly stressful start to the new year.
A week or so ago, I began to get a handle on things, starting with the realization that I was torturing myself about two major, year-long projects but doing too little about actually achieving them. I was living the parable of the boiling frog, suffering in the heat rather than jumping to safety. It’s a good thing I’m pretty, because I am not smart.
I decided to research goal-setting and time management. For starters, I’m good at research, so it was a nice, non-threatening but practical way to kick things off. Because I’m more a writer than most anything else, I confess I went looking for information among sites offering this sort of advice to writers. My first (very fortunate) stop, was The Creative Penn, the website of author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn, and from there her YouTube channel and a particular video addressing how to set writing goals and manage time in the context of needing to meet other time-consuming commitments. It was, without hyperbole, perfectly what I was looking for.
It was so perfectly what I was looking for that I’ve included the various links above in order to explicitly add them to the list of invaluable writing resources that I began compiling here last blogpost.
While Joanna’s video essentially revolves around the old time management idea of filling a jar with big stones first, then smaller ones, then sand, where the jar is time and the various rocks are the demands on your time, she explicates the idea thoroughly, with specific applicability to writing, and considerable and contagious positivity. I took notes. And then I set about applying them to the problem of my colliding immovable thesis and unstoppable writing.
One thing became immediately apparent when I dared to finally turn and face my thesis. It really is immovable. The deadline is not my deadline to alter, and when that day comes, as it will soon, I will either be ready or I will fail. I was obliged to acknowledge that the thesis had primacy, however much urgency I’d been feeling about my writing lately. So, although I’d initially taken Joanna Penn’s advice to mean I should declare writing the novel to be my “big rock” goal and schedule it first, by the time I finished examining the demands on my time I realized the “big rock” was the thesis, and writing would have to fit around it.
It was a cheerless realization, but it was also the course-correction I needed to end my paralysis. Knowledge is usually better than cosplaying an ostrich.
My written goals became:
Two-Three Year Writing Goal: Complete and submit a novel.
One Year Study Goal: Complete research and hand in a high quality honours thesis.
One Year Writing Goal, First six months of 2018: Write three short stories
One Year Writing Goal, Second six months of 2018: Complete pre-writing/planning for first novel
Obviously, the writing goal for the first six months of this year appears fairly paltry and unambitious. But I stand by it. This reflects my general state of paralysis at the time of planning vs my need to set a goal that was achievable, that would not incur so much pressure that it detracted from the “big rock” goal of that immovable thesis. And, to be frank, if I end the six months with three stories then that will be progress for me and I will be happy.
My next step was to ask what major, specific tasks needed to be completed in 2018 to accomplish these goals, and when did they need to be accomplished. This, I won’t lie, was the time consuming part.
Writing was relatively straightforward, and I quickly used Outlook calendar to schedule necessary preparation. For example, I set aside a day to brainstorm story ideas so that I wouldn’t run out of ideas during a busy semester. I then scheduled a daily hour and a half writing session enabled by getting up earlier.
For the thesis, I first consulted with my thesis supervisor to get a better idea of where I was and what I faced. At her suggestion, I scheduled the rest of January for completing coding and data analysis, and set aside daily time for that, plus daily time for thesis-related academic reading—something which has suffered a lot during my procrastination phase. For a while there, my entire theoretical framework section was looking to be, “I don’t know, Goffman and Stryker and stuff.”
My thesis supervisor also asked for a rough timeline of when I would be handing in first drafts of the various thesis sections and chapters. By now, I was on a scheduling roll. I quickly worked out the required word counts for each section, and what percentage those word counts were of the whole. I worked out how much time I had between the end of January and two weeks before the known deadline for the entire first draft (that two weeks being my safety margin—I have learned to build in safety margins). From that, I applied the word count percentages to the available time to arrive at how long I could spend on each section, and turned that into date ranges. Et voila! Timeline… which I scheduled into Outlook, with daily blocks of time for actual thesis writing.
Another of my supervisor’s suggestions was to schedule my weekends as actual free time, as I’ve had a persistent tendency to simply abandon recreation while university is running, and it’s had a bit of an impact on my stress levels and health. So I re-jigged my various schedules to do just that. Weekends! The prospect of guilt-free weekends was my first inkling that time management had powers I had not previously suspected… I also penciled in some time for recreational reading, a blessing almost as great as weekends.
So last week was my grand experiment with goal-setting and working to a daily schedule.
There were ups and downs. A thing is hardly a thing in its first week of existence, and a novice planner is never going to foresee everything. When various scheduled items tripped over their feet and fell down, I tried to be flexible, to honour the spirit of the schedule by doing a little of everything I had planned for that time-frame, then returned to the ideal schedule when I could. It worked out.
In the first half of the week I accomplished most of the planning and organization described above. Working to my daily schedule in the second half of the week allowed me to further accomplish:
Writing 3,500 words of a new science fiction story.
Reading six short stories.
Coding 700 pieces of text towards my January coding/data analysis goal.
Reading 4 academic articles related to the thesis read.
And having a weekend has given me time to schedule the odd writing-related but not actual-pen-on-paper task, such as catching up my blog, and doing some critiquing.
Again, no one’s going to nominate me for the most accomplished human of the week, but I’m very pleased with that. It certainly represents progress away from paralysis. A satisfactory proof of concept.
So, I’m writing a novel with fierce and determined intent. (Or with a healthy dose of fake it until you make it. Hopefully, that’ll add up to the same thing.)
Right now, I’m focused on pulling together data for my honours thesis, which means my writing efforts have been a) slow and b) dedicated to organising the novel as I would any other project. I’ve been reading up on novel writing to give myself some idea of how the process will (or should) differ from writing short fiction. I’ve also been looking at different software or online writing tools that might help.
Those I use, or plan to use, I’ll discuss here. I figure, a few mini-reviews of such toolbox items might be useful to others, and will certainly be useful to me when I (eventually) reflect on the process of having written the novel and compare my expectations for various tools and methods against actual outcomes.
This post, I’m going to discuss two sources of writing information that I’ve found very useful and return to often—Brandon Sanderson’s novel-writing lecture series on YouTube, and a fantastic book on writing by Patricia Wrede.
Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series
Brandon Sanderson is one of the leading lights of modern epic fantasy. His Mistborn series is the very exemplar of what I would like to write in terms of genre, style, length, and devotion to world-building. He’s also a writing machine—and if you don’t believe me, glance at his website, where the header features a graph of how close to completion his four concurrent projects are!
There are worse people to learn from!
Evidently, Brigham Young University agrees, as Sanderson lectures there on writing speculative fiction. While it’s difficult not to experience pangs of envy that there are university students learning their craft from Brandon Sanderson, it’s mollifying to know that an entire semester of these lessons has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube for the greedy eyes and ears of those of us not so blessed.
They can be found on the Camera Panda channel and it’s well worth subscribing and revisiting them often until you’ve learned all you can from them.
Each lecture covers different parts of the writing process, from ideas, through structure, outlining, and character development, to writing, editing, and the business of writing. Sanderson’s method for developing an idea is relatively simple but flexible, and explicitly seeks to find the original and cool in your novel-to-be. His discussion of the business is practical and rooted in his considerable experience as a bestselling novelist.
Conveniently, the information accompany each lecture lists the details of topics covered in that video, plus where in the run time those topics can be found.
Hand on heart, it is an astonishing resource for people wanting to write a novel.
Wrede on Writing, by Patricia C. Wrede
Patricia Wrede has written a good many enjoyable fantasy novels, but may be best known for her brilliantly entertaining YA fantasy series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.
At the risk of hinting at my vast age, I first encountered Patricia Wrede on Usenet, where she frequently posted writing advice to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition. Wrede staunchly defended the idea that there were no writing rules, only guidelines, and that the standard wasn’t whether something broke a “rule” but whether it worked. Then she would provide a host of different methodologies so those reading her advice could pick what worked for them. While Usenet has atrophied with the rise of social media, a good chunk of her advice from that time has made it into her book, Wrede on Writing.
The book is divided into sections, from the basics, through the “not so basics,” to expert guidance on the business side of things.
Every single chapter is a gem. However, I do have a favourite. Her discussion of viewpoint is a masterpiece of clarity, detailing every major form of viewpoint and how to use it. Each explanation is accompanied by a short scene which recounts the same characters experiencing the same event using that particular style of viewpoint. If there’s a more lucid and edifying description of viewpoint anywhere, I’ve never encountered it. If you’re still at the stage of wondering about viewpoint, or simply where you want or need a refresher sometimes, it’s worth the price of the book all by itself.
Of course, it’s also well-worth spending time on her blog, Six Impossible Things, which is similarly a fount of writing wisdom.
Sometimes, you need to stop and take stock. Life happens, time catches you by surprise, change socks you in the jaw, and you just need to stop, look at your feet, look back, look around, and make a plan or two.
Where I’m At
Well, I’m drifting. Three months since my last blog post, two months after the one before that. Blogging isn’t my first priority, but neglecting a blog is certainly a sign—like the wind dropping just before a movie sailing ship falls into the doldrums.
Oh, there’s been some movement.
I’ve finished the first semester of my sociology honours year and taken a bit of a break. Recently, I’ve been in the data gathering phase of my thesis research. My topic ended up focused on relating identity theory to public punitiveness with the aim of improving the public’s satisfaction with criminal justice policy (reflecting my sociology/criminology double major). It’s my first original research, of course, and, though the scope of an honours thesis is limited, it’s been challenging.
I’ve written a couple of short stories and sent them around to the markets. One story was shortlisted at Andromeda Spaceways, but was ultimately rejected.
My social world has taken a bit of a hit, reminding me that nothing is permanent except change. And my self-image has stirred uncomfortably at the approach of a landmark birthday; there’s no pretending I’m permanent, either.
So… movement… but not much to show for a year, either.
Where I’m Going
Well, I sometimes wonder. But my plan necessarily focuses on study and writing.
I already have a substantial plan for study, as that’s a necessity if you hope to end an honours year with a thesis actually in hand. Let’s pretend study will take care of itself.
Writing is the thing. I continue to struggle to make time for it, to my ongoing and deep frustration. University must take precedence if I want all that hard work to pay off, but I do believe I can do better.
There have been two core frustrations:
I’ve not been writing enough to practice and improve my skill set, leaving me good enough to know I’m not particularly good, but not good enough to do anything about it.
I’ve been writing short stories despite wanting to write a novel, because short stories are bite-sized chunks that fit into narrow slices of available time. But neglecting what you want to do in pursuit of grim practicality is soul-destroying.
With change and mortality firmly in mind, I’m going to stop short stories for a while to focus on my first novel. Rather than dither and procrastinate, as I’ve too often been prone to do with writing, I’m drawing on my university skill set to pursue the novel as an organized project, no different from my thesis—planned, scheduled, actively pursued. I don’t know what the novel will be, yet, or if it will be any good. There may be false starts. But the goal is to produce a finished, novel-length work within eighteen months.
And, I’ll blog the process here in, probably, terrifying detail. If the novel equates to my thesis, then this blog will represent my field notes. In the end, I hope to have mapped my own process in a way edifying to my future self and anyone else who chances to read it.
Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…
Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.
Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.
As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”
Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.
For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.
Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.
We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.
I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.
And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.
There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.
This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.
It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.
Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.
I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.
Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.
You could be forgiven (are forgiven, I forgive you) for thinking this blog dead, the silence having become both long and deep. It’s not!
Now, I had been trying to put my writing on a more organised footing, integrated with my studies, rah rah life balance. For me, social media was a part of that effort. Alas, after I lost a few work days to Cyclone Debbie just as last semester’s assessment really kicked off, and since last semester was also the final semester of my BA, I was obliged to kick life balance to the curb and go all in to get through. No half-arsing your final semester, because there’s no next semester in which to patch everything up and keep going.
This means, to be clear, I’ve not written anything in ages. My last story is half-done, a lifeless semi-file languishing on Dropbox. And I’ve very much felt the not writing, a piercing ache at the back of everything I’ve done since stopping. But I made the choice and lived with it.
It was the right choice. The semester was a real challenge in more ways than one, and I wanted good results. But the semester is also now over. That’s the reason for this post: to Frankenstein up and declare, “It’s alive!”
Hopefully, the writing will soon follow. I’m mentally tired, I am, and I fear my engine may have stalled. We’ll see. One resurrection at a time…
Well, after yesterday’s pervading gloomy sense of failure, I put in some serious labour on my university work yesterday afternoon to clear the decks for today. My cunning plan being to spend today writing until my knuckles ached.
So I did.
I scrapped all the work I’d done on the short story so far–figuring some of my difficulty with it was my subconscious telling me I was doing it wrong–and started from scratch.
The new version retained the main character’s voice, but switched from first to third person. Two existing scenes lost an event and I merged them into a single slightly longer scene with a more logical progression.
And, in two long sessions, I managed a total of 2700 words. By my standards, that’s not a small number! I’m very pleased with that progress. Now I have a much clearer idea of how to progress the story from where I am.
Needless to say, it was also marvelous to actually devote a full day to nothing but writing. Feels like Christmas!