The Writing Process: Audience

Christensen-Storyteller

“A writer really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course, if others like it, that is clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content.”
Alfred North Whitehead

I read a blog a few days ago about blogging. The blogger suggested that people who say they write blogs for themselves may as well just write in a journal. His comment prompted a thought or two about why I write a blog. Here is my initial conclusion:

I write a blog to share ideas that I find entertaining, edifying, encouraging, enlightening, and/or empowering. The E-ticket. Some of those ideas come from other people; some of them come from me. It doesn’t matter the source. If I like it, I share it with my audience of about ten persons.

I am thinking about sharing more of my stories. I like my stories; sometimes they really crack me up. My father used to say, “I’m going to tell myself a joke.” Then he would be quiet for a few seconds while he was thinking of his joke. Then he would laugh out loud. He never told the rest of us what the joke was. I’m like my father in that I like to tell myself stories, but, unlike him, I share them with those around me.

(Note to self: The tricky part of sharing stories is their length. Stories on a blog should not go on forever like Aunt Edna’s ass. They should be short and neat. That is no problem for “Clark the Cat” and “Life at Cabela’s” stories. I can make them short enough. However, I don’t know if I can do the same with the “Rhino” stories. We’ll see.)

I write my blog for another audience of persons who happen to be dead. (If they don’t mind, then I certainly don’t.) I write for George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, H. L. Mencken, Kurt Vonnegut, Leopold Aldo, Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Isaac Asimov. They have been the source of so much inspiration, it seems only fitting that I should share the fruits of their labors.

There is another audience for whom I write—the persons in my karass. These are the people whose taste in the literature is the same as mine. Imagine that books are like pizzas. The people in my karass all like the same toppings on a thin crust. Our favorite literary names are Elizabeth and Alice.

Knowing one’s audience is supposed to be a good thing. Finding one’s audience is also good if one can do it. I recommend finding your three audiences: Ten living persons, ten dead persons, and the persons in your karass. You may not know who is in the last one; I mean, with all the billions of people in the world eating every imaginable kind of pizza, how can we find that special community who shares our taste? You just have to believe that they are out there, eating their personal pizza by themselves wishing that someone would join them. That’s another reason I write. I’m looking for pizza partners. There is room at my table.

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The Revelation ~ Chapter Six

Kleitsch-Two Boys R

“Once a heart has opened itself to love, it cannot easily close that door. The heart remembers.”

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity.”
Psalm 133:1 KJV

(Painting by Joseph Kleitsch)

The Writing Process: Three Character Stories

Map-Journal

Ethan Frome is the story of a man who does not have a “No.” He is in mental and emotional bondage to his wife, a sickly, mean-spirited woman. I never did figure out why she was the way she was, nor why Ethan was so submissive to her. However, I learned one thing from Zeena Frome: Every character has three stories.

We read in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot that a cat has three names: the one his family gives him, the one the other cats call him, and the secret name he gives himself. In a similar manner, every character has three stories: a behavior story, a backstory, and a between-the-lines story. I did not understand Zeena Frome based on her observable behavior; the things she said and did were just plain mean for the sake of being mean. I decided there must be something more to her story, that there were stories I knew not of—Zeena’s backstory and her between-the-lines story.

The Behavior Story
This is what a characters shows to the world of readers. It is his or her actions, words, thoughts, and feelings explicitly described on paper. There is nothing hidden in the Behavior Story. If an author writes “the skin on his scalp contracted,” then that is what happened. A reader may not know why or when or for how long, but he or she does know this bit of information about the character.

The Backstory
This is what precedes the behavior story. It is the history of a character, usually an explanation and/or justification of what they do, say, think, and feel. The backstory often answers the question “Why?” A reader knows only as much of the backstory as the author chooses to reveal.

The Between-the-Lines Story
This is the secret story, the one never explicitly set down on paper. It is the story of a character’s daily life as it might be or could be; it is the life about which no one knows. Fan fiction stories are examples of between-the-lines stories.

Getting back to Ethan and Zeena: Their creator Edith Wharton does not give much of a backstory on them, at least not enough to explain their behavior to my satisfaction. However, she uses an interesting literary device to reveal what she does of the backstory. Another character tells his own Between-the-Lines story about Ethan and Zeena. Gandalf does this in Lord of the Rings to explain Gollum’s behavior. In both cases, the reader is aware that the character is filling in the blanks, and that the story could be incorrect.

Getting back to Cats: I think, like cats, we all have three names. I also think we have three stories: our behavior story, our backstory, and our between-the-lines story. I have more to say about that, but that is another story.

(Note to self: How much should authors reveal of their characters’ backstories? Is it possible that an author may not know what it is?)

 

Dylan Thomas ~ Gustave Corot

Corot~Tempest

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze light meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas ~ Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night 1951, 1952

(Painting by Gustave Corot)

The Writing Process: Telling, not Showing

kleitsch-byzantium

A friend recently commented that my second book of Rhino contained a lot of telling rather than showing. I have been told enough about “show, not tell” to be disturbed by committing such a writing faux pas; “telling, not showing” is something to be avoided like the deus ex machina plague. I felt obliged to revise the manuscript into more showing, less telling, but then I happened to read The Ruined Cottage by William Wordsworth. I was immediately drawn into the nearly “all-tell” story written by a master storyteller.

The story itself is simple: rise, and then fall, a person vs. fate conflict. It’s very familiar. It could be anyone’s story, and that is one of the reasons it is so compelling. It is easy to empathize with the main character; in fact, I think many people would sympathize, having been through a similar experience. When one tells the story of humanity, one does not need a lot of “show.” Our common journey through Life fills in the details with personal experience. When I read a well written “tell”, my own memories show me what it looks like.

The other reason The Ruined Cottage is a literary masterpiece is because of how it is put together. It’s like the scene from the movie Apollo 13 in which the engineers had to figure out how to turn the power back on. The process involved a set of switches—I think about six—that had to be engaged in a particular order. For six switches that is 720 distinct possibilities. The engineers kept trying different combinations until they found the right one.

In the same way, Wordsworth uses a set of familiar words to tell his story. There is nothing complicated or convoluted in the narration. It is just the simple tale of a woman whose husband has gone to war. Many stories have a similar theme. But in Wordsworth’s hands, the story is compelling; he found the right combination of words to make the magic. For all its telling, The Ruined Cottage never devolves into a news report.

(Note: In my opinion, a great deal of what passes for story-telling is merely news reporting. Perhaps this is why people are so fussed about “fake news”—the line between it and “fake stories” is no longer sharply defined.)

In the end, I decided not to revise the manuscript, but that is another story.

(Note to self: Are there other literary examples of telling, not showing? Do other people see some novels as news reports?)