Archive for the 'Elmer the Cat' Category

Jan 20 2010

Writer-as-protagonist in story

Steve and I were talking yesterday about his irritation at the “writer as protagonist” that often shows up in fiction. One of the most famous examples of this (and arguably the single biggest reason for the popularity of the trope) is Stephen King. It can be seen in his earlier works such as The Shining or Salem’s Lot, and continues to show up in several of his works throughout his bibliography (The Dark Half, Secret Windows, Lisey’s Story). Dean Koontz, another huge name in the horror genre, has also written stories (such as Lightning or Mr. Murder) which feature a writer in the main character role. Nor is this trend limited to horror; Kurt Vonnegut and Charles de Lint are two of several authors in the sff genre who have placed writer characters in starring story roles. I’m not as well-read in the more literary fiction end of the spectrum, but I’d be very surprised if a similar pattern wasn’t present there as well. (Feel free to mention and discuss other examples in the comments.)

I’m still a bit unclear on exactly why Steve gets so irritated by writer-protagonists — hopefully he’ll clarify his position a bit more in comments, hehe. I remember from our last chat that he feels like having a writer as a protagonist in a story you’re writing creates too many situations where you are tempted to be clever, or clever-seeming, possibly even superseding the priorities of the story. I think he said it’s the difference between an author being clever in how they tell a story, versus using a technique that says “hey, look at me being clever over here”.

I suppose I can see that point; certainly some of the more forgettable stories I’ve read with writers in the lead role felt rather like what Steve describes. On another hand, some of the more interesting examples of the trope do play around with some neat ideas. Koontz’s Odd Thomas books reference the unreliability of a writer narrator throughout the stories, making references to editing and eliding events even as he tells the tale. de Lint uses writer characters as he does other artists and musicians in his Newford stories, where the act of creative generation unlocks hidden magics in the surrounding world. Vonnegut’s writers don’t seem to be able to self-referentially change the story due to their own writing; I get the impression, reading some of his quasi-auto-biographical fiction works, that his characters are often writers because Vonnegut himself is one. However, Vonnegut didn’t always do the writer-character-as-avatar for himself. I’ve read several references to his famous Kilgore Trout being a poke at Theodore Sturgeon, which amuses me to consider.

Looking at King’s extensive bibliography and publishing history, I’m struck with another thought that’s occurred to me before. So many of his writer characters struggle with aspects of their craft–even to several of them blocked on writing, alcoholics, or otherwise engaged in unstable and self-damaging behaviors–which fascinates me when compared with the fact that, since 1974, there has only been one year that King didn’t publish one or more finished pieces. It doesn’t seem from his observable public output that King, the person, suffers from much in the way of writer’s blocks or dangerous instability preventing his writing. Did much of the potential for that self-destruction get sublimated and exorcised into the more troubled writer-protagonists of his stories?

What do you think about this trope of the writer-as-protagonist? Do you like it? Does it irritate you when you encounter it? Are there similar metaphoric parallels in other artistic disciplines, for you other creative types out there? Let’s discuss!

2 responses so far

Jul 08 2009

Learning experience (or, revising really is fun!)

Back and recovering from the trip like a tired, aching thing. Still much work to be done, just doing what parts I can do while sitting around and resting for today. Now on to the interesting stuff…

I’m entering in the last round of edits for “…Elmer the Cat” today in preparation for sending it off. This has been a profound learning experience from start to finish. In the first draft, I had the voice of the narrator so clearly in my head that writing the story was quick and much more linear than many of my stories. It’s been through 6 readers and several revision rounds, including an awesome workshopping that I think I already mentioned, with Steve and Nathan (and Kendra sitting in) up at 4th Street. Had another deep session with Nathan on the plane back, and I think one of the biggest signs that I had to be done with working on it for now was that in some of my own editing suggestions, I’d moved far enough away from it that I was starting to lose the voice that had come through so clearly in draft 1. Happily, Nathan caught most of those and I do think the result is a tighter story. I certainly hope I can get this one published, and already have three or four places lined up to send it to, so we’ll see how it goes.

While I’m trying to remember to take the time to appreciate my accomplishments, there’s more writing to be done! Already a full to-do list today, with catching up on emails to be written at the top of the list. (Also, trolling the trunk for salvageable stories, and jumping the next hurdle of brainstorming so that I can move on with the novel work. And updating the to-do list, hehe.)

Another experience in learning my writing attitudes and routines recently has been quite nifty. I stopped working on the novel for a bit to focus on “…Elmer the Cat”, and thought (rather casually) that I was having a slack-off moment on the novel, being a lazier writer than I really want to be. However, since I’ve been working on letting my head move more at the pace it wants to go, I didn’t struggle too much to self-castigate and just enjoyed the short story work — and my, did I enjoy it! Even as much as it pushed my limits I loved every bit of this latest short story, from brainstorming to drafting to final-for-now revision. (Though I agree with my stepmom Mary, that there’s no such thing as a final draft, you can always go back and revise or rework a piece whenever you feel it needs it.)

And in the process, figured out that the reason I was hesitating on the novel work wasn’t slacking off at all, but a wall needing smashed in regards to a (very good) editing suggestion I received from the marvelous Ella, that I needed more definition of time/space/place. And I agreed with her thought, and realized that not having some of that defined was part of what was slowing me down in this second draft — and that the faster I got to codifying that, the less of this draft I’d have to go back and re-write from the ground up later. Saving future me work is definitely a goal of mine, so my other learning experience this week was a more subtle layer of trusting my writing process/hindbrain, that even apparent laziness might actually be a useful break to regroup and rethink. Also, knowing which hurdle it is that I’m jumping this time is invigorating to the desire to dive back into the work.

For anyone reading who wants to join in, feel free to comment on any of the above or jump into this discussion: What sort of experience have you had with your work or craft recently where your own process surprised you by working outside of your expectations?

2 responses so far

Jun 05 2009

Speaking of progress…short story draft done!

It’s unsatisfying at this time, but I have a done draft of “The Explainable and Entirely Expected Expiration of Elmer The Cat”. Done enough to start on the fun of revising it into something good enough for others to read, anyway. It was one of the easiest stories I’ve written recently, the protagonist’s voice was distinct and flowed well through the narrative. I felt rather bad at what all he had to go through by the end, poor kid.

This is a good story, and I still love the title even if it is a bit absurd. And now I revise and go back to working on the novel, where Chapter Three eagerly awaits me. Here’s hoping it writes as smoothly as the first two chapters did!

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