Writing Report June 11, 2017
Yet another example of how the writer’s mind -- at least this writer’s mind -- works, in which I create a story I will probably never write…
…but more on that below.
I shall annotate as needed.
Thursday morning, after finally getting a good night’s sleep after being sick most of the week, I awoke with a story title in my head: ”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway”
I actually saw the title already printed up in my dream, in the style of old time men’s adventure magazines.
[Annotation #1: Men’s adventure magazine -- affectionately known as “sweaties” -- were a popular format / genre from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. While their predecessors existed in the earlier pulp era, the “sweaties” were different in several key aspects. For one, while sci-fi / fantasy / mystery pulps transmogrified into square bound digest-size publications, the “sweaties” melded with the saddle stitched racy pin-up magazines. For another, their stories, while remaining mostly fictional, attempted to pass themselves off as factual true events. While the stories remained somewhat plausible at the beginning of the “sweaties” era, by the mid-1960s they were thinly disguised male wish fulfillment fantasies of increasingly improbable proportions. Nonetheless, they were a hoot to read, and even now the genre has fans such as those found at Bob Deis’ Men's Adventure Magazines & Books on Facebook.]
Back to my dream:
I awoke with the title in my head, and from the style of the title I knew the story had to be in classic men’s adventure magazine mode.
But what kind of story?
Well, obviously, something to do with highways (…duh). I had just started re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in the original scroll draft (which, technically, is a memoir or a travelogue, and not an autobiographical novel as the first edition was), so the story would be constantly moving, traveling, going somewhere, but…why?
Because of Kerouac, my brain instantly flashed the story would need to be set in Quebec. Somebody had to get somewhere -- why?
My brain flashed again:
Roman Holiday, a delightful classic romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn as a young princess who just wants to have fun, and Gregory Peck as a world weary journalist who treats her to a night on the town when she sneaks away from her embassy.
…but “sweaties” demand gut-slammin’ jaw-poundin’ tire-screechin’ gun-blastin’ !A!C!T!T!I!O!N!, not some wimpy romance.
So…keep the basic idea, only…only the princess has just been orphaned: The time is immediately at the end of WWII. The royal family of some small but strategically important Eastern European nation sat out exile in a remote ethnic community of their countrymen in Quebec during the war. They planned to return as soon as the war ended, but not everyone in the ethnic community wants the old royal family back; some are communist agents who kill her parents.
The princess escapes and is hidden. However, spies and assassins are everywhere, and even though they’ve tried to disguise the teen as a typical bobby-soxer, her regal manner makes her stick out like a sore thumb.
[Annotation #2: Where the hell is the RCMP in all this? Gonna need some handwavium to keep ‘em at arm’s length, but I can come up with that later.]
So my protagonist -- a melding of Peck and Kerouac -- knocks the regal out of the princess by forcing her to clean a public toilet by herself.
The effort leaves her tired / grossed out / pissed off…
…and not at all regal looking.
Now our hero can get her on the aforementioned highway and go barreling down to Montreal where her embassy awaits to protect her.
Well, that evokes memories of Thunder Road which is great: Plenty of car-chasing / car-crashing action to go around, plus some occasional bomb-throwing / gun-shooting / fist-fighting for variety.
Now we’ve got our title, our premise, our conflict, our main characters, our setting, and enough hi-octane high concept to keep the inventive juices flowing…
…if I choose to write it.
See, everything you just read, including the various asides, formed in my head in the space of less than two and a half minutes elapsed time from the moment I woke up. (Oh, and I was carrying on a conversation with Soon-ok simultaneously.)
150 seconds to whip up 650 words worth of story concept -- and I wasn’t even thinking about it!
This happens all the time. I’m minding my own business, not bothering a soul, not really thinking about anything, and BOOM! suddenly an idea has exploded in my head and is screaming “WritemewritemeWRITEME!!! Write me write NOW!”
Ain’t gonna happen, compadre.
Least not anytime soon.
As fast as I can come up with ideas, I’m nowhere near as fast writing them down.
“Writing them down” is a misnomer. It really means I’m researching the idea, probing for weak spots, fleshing out the characters, coming up with plot and incident and dialog to drive the story along…and that doesn’t include all the work that comes after it’s written down, either.
If I decided to write this store, I would want to keep it short (under 6,000 words). That means if I committed to it, I could probably finish a rough draft in a week’s time.
So why don’t I?
Well, ignoring the huge backlog of other stories in various stages of completion in my mind / on my desk / in my computer, the reason is going to cause a lot of you to look at me as a snob, and if you do, so be it; you’re not the one occupying my skin, I am.
There are, in my estimation, three classes of fiction: True Fiction, Genre Fiction, Stock Fiction.
There’s nothing wrong with any of them; as noted above even Stock Fiction can be tons o’fun to write and read
But each possesses certain strengths, counter-balanced by equal weaknesses.
We’ll start at the bottom of the barrel and work our way up: Stock Fiction is nothing but formulaic stock characters involved in formulaic stock situations, saying and doing formulaic stock things.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that (lord knows I can’t get enough old B-movie westerns to satisfy me).
Sometimes all you want to do as an audience is turn off your brain and go through the pleasant (e)motions of a story.
Even when done professionally, as likely as not it’s just a better grade of fan-fic.
You could literally get a computer to write this kind of stuff; it ain’t rocket science.
Stock Fiction takes what already exists and rearranges it slightly and peddles the product as new.
But there’s nothing there. It’s all just empty calories like a cheap snack food: One bite and it’s gone (but oh, how delicious while chomping).
The second form is Genre Fiction, and this is essentially Stock Fiction written well.
The same caveats and criticism apply, but there’s a little more legroom, a little more breathing space, a little more originality here (not much, not nearly enough, but some).
Genre Fiction basically takes stock characters and stock stories then amps them up with a dollop of originality.
If the pleasure of Stock Fiction is the beauty of the form, the pleasure of Genre Fiction is the deviation from the norm.
Take a Stock Fiction story, give it just enough insight and wit and originality to boost the characters from one dimension to two, and you’ve got a palatable hit on your hands.
The geniuses of this field -- and true geniuses they are, no snark here -- are many, but let’s focus on four in the tiny, tiny sub-group of really well done detective fiction: Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald’s Ross and John D.
Through their philosophizin’ PIs, their complex and compromised characters, their willingness to tell the truth about the world around them via their genre of choice, they create something new and fresh and wonderful…
…but not completely whole.
When they work well -- as Chandler did, as John D. did when Travis McGee was fresh and new in the world and found only in paperback originals -- they create genuine art, something any reader can consume without shame, something adding to this weary world, not merely draining more from it.
But there is a limit, stylistically if nothing else, that holds these writers and their works back.
They can ride their literary steeds as high up the hill as possible, and in the fading evening light they can catch a glimpse of the city they can never visit, the city they can imagine, the city they can yearn for, the city they can never visit.
True Fiction -- good fiction, pure fiction -- starts so much further out and beyond from Genre Fiction.
It starts with an idea that is fresh! and original! (though sometimes the idea ends up coming to it).
There are no genres in True Fiction, real fiction. Life is not defined by terms and conditions we conjure up, it is what it is. We may later find a conveniently labeled box to drop it in, but that’s not what it is, that’s never what it is.
A work of True Fiction comes out of nowhere, entraps us, and takes us all…Somewhere! Anywhere! we never visited before, indeed, may never even realized existed before exquisitely brought to our attention.
It is a work of art first, a bundle of tropes second -- if at all!
Truth be told, True Fiction may not do well in initial release, but what gives it staying power is that it takes readers someplace brand new even though they’ve already seen it a million times.
”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway” is straight stock fiction, one from column A, one from column B formulaic storytelling. I might, if really pressed, come up with enough originality to ooonch it up a notch or two in the form of a scene here, a supporting character there.
That’s not what I’m trying to do.
My goals and ambitions lay higher, and while I certainly have some genre and stock influences in me, I’d like to think I’m aiming higher, unwilling to fall back.
Because that’s what Genre and Stock Fiction would represent to me, a falling back to safer pastures.
I probably won’t write ”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway” because I can see nothing in it that promises to rise above Stock Fiction.
If I applied myself and worked hard at it, I might be able to boost it up to the level of low grade Genre Fiction.
But that’s as high as she’ll get.
I have a limited number of years allotted me on earth, and while I might fail in the attempt, I’m gonna spend ‘em trying to write True Fiction.
[Annotation #3: Some of my more pragmatic friends will ask why I don’t write ”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway” anyway and sell it and use the money to help buy time to write True Fiction. Because there’s no market for that kind of fiction anymore, that’s why. Once upon a time a writer could sell two hours worth of TV scripts a year and earn enough to coast thru the next nine months writing True Fiction. Not anymore: The freelance market in everything has long since evaporated and the amount of time and effort taken to place a short story simply ain’t worth it other than in publicity and egoboo. Yeah, ”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway” could probably make a good low budget indie film, but it takes forever and a day to get those kinds of films made; I lack the time and patience. So this is as close as we’re ever probably gonna get to seeing ”Drive Down The Devil’s Highway” written down.]
[Annotation #4: Least any of my sibling scribes think I’m trash talkin’ them for what they choose to write…no. This is about me, my POV, my values, my motives, my soul. If you’re writing a continuing character who makes you money and your readers happy, you go for it. Nothing shameful about that at all. If I’ll watch crappy 1950s sci-fi movies, I’ve got no business telling you what you can or can’t write, should or shouldn’t feel good about. Fly your freak flag high.]