Lately I’ve been having thoughts on the process of my writing, and jotted down these notes as a reminder for myself of what it is I am doing. I look forward to coming back to them in a few years, to see if they still hold true. In the mean time, perhaps they can provide you with some amusement—and a peak into the churning muddle that is this author’s mind.
Writing fiction is different from any other form of art I’ve encountered in that so much of it happens internally, where no one—not even the author, sometimes—can tell what’s going on. With drawing, there is the physical act of creating the image, which people can watch. It can be fascinating to watch an artist draw, or paint, and see the picture appear, as if by magic, on the page. And at the end, you have a finished picture that is immediately obvious to everyone around you. “Here I am,” the picture says. “This person can draw.”
I’ve noticed that it is easier it is to talk about my painting than it is to talk about my writing. It’s easier to show someone a picture and say “I did that” than it is to convince them to read a story. A picture doesn’t take much time to look at, but a story takes time to read. Furthermore, most people can tell at a glance whether or not they like the picture, and then decide how long they want to look at it. With a story, sometimes you can’t tell until the very end, and it can be a bitter disappointment when it lets you down.
Writing is an invisible sort of art that happens inside the author’s head, but also somewhere on the page, between the words and sentences and paragraphs. You’re not just painting a picture when you write a story, you’re crafting a whole landscape, with a road winding around in it, and readers walk down this road and experience your story.
I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and novellas lately and watching how my language changes from one story to the next. It helps that I have three distinct series running at the same time. The Bouragner Felpz stories are a bit of an early 20th Century pastiche with British mannerisms and spelling and a first person narrator with a storytelling style all her own.
The Professor Odd series is more American in tone, even though the principal characters are European. Professor Odd is more informal than Bouragner Felpz and has the (suitably) odd quirk that, though I have several point-of-view characters to serve as hosts for my third-person eye, I never use Professor Odd herself. The closest we get to the inside of her head is when she tells one of the POV characters something.
Finally, Driving Arcana, which is more like Professor Odd than not, still has a distinct style. While Professor Odd takes place in far-off universes, aboard spaceships, and on alien planets, Driving Arcana is set in a near-future version of the United States. The subject matter is therefore different, as are the types of stories I can tell. This in turn affects the language I use.
Stories are communication, and like communication between two people, there is more to it than just words and their definitions. In person we communicate with our tone, our hand gestures, and our expressions. In writing, word choice can add subtle information to a sentence and fill out the landscape with hues and texture, subtly telling the reader about the nature of the landscape they’re in, and what’s in store.
Sometimes I read stories and I just know nothing too bad is going to happen. I can tell from the style of the writing. These always frighten me, because there is nothing quite as bad as rolling happily along until the writer pulls the rug out from under you and has something horrible happen at the end. It’s a betrayal, I think. If you’re not going to put up huge warning signs saying “cliff ahead,” at least have the decency to warn about the cliff in other ways. Maybe have some other cliffs looming about, or places where the road has been washed away. Things like that.
On the other hand, most writers like to keep their readers on edge, and so they write in a way that says “Could be cliffs here. Could be lots of cliffs. You don’t know.” I find these stories particularly satisfying, especially when at the end, everyone gets over the ravine unharmed.
Stories are like puzzles to me. I turn the pieces this way and that, trying to see how they fit. I’ve become wary of pushing them in too hard, since sometimes, with enough shoving, I can get a piece to fit, but that doesn’t make it the right one. The right piece slips in easily, and it can take a while to find it.
Stories are like four-dimensional paintings. They stretch out through time and space, into the limitless expanse of the human imagination. They are not like a performance: all the work happens behind the curtain, and when it lifts there is a book. But though the story exists then, it does not truly come alive until someone picks it up and reads it.
The final piece to any story is the reader. It is the reader that gives it life, it is the reader that imbues it with its ultimate reality. Furthermore, each reader makes a slightly different reality, because everyone has differing experiences and opinions that color their perception of the world. And what are stories but little worlds, waiting to be activated?
Stories are a bit like a magic trick with a lot of audience participation. When I am writing, I find myself, like a magician, thinking not only about how things appear to the characters in the story, but how they will appear to the people reading it. What words I can use to spark the fires in my readers’ heads, so that their imaginations rise up and meet mine, creating a world even more vivid and realistic than I ever could on my own.
I can write a story much like a composer writes music, but it is the reader who plays it. Every time someone reads a story, a performance happens inside their heads. And they are the ones making that happen.
I think this is why reading is so much more mentally stimulating than, say, watching a movie. Because when you’re reading, you are actively participating in creating the story—even if you don’t come up with a single new idea or thought of your own, even though the writer did all that for you—you are the one who is making it real.
I can sing in the woods with no one but the trees to hear and the sound will still happen. But there will never be that magic of images and feelings exploding out of nowhere that happens when a singing voice meets the ears of a receptive listener. In the same way I can write a story and never publish it, never show it to anyone, and it will still exist, but there will never be the same, sudden magic that happens when a book is picked up and read.
All art sparks something within us. All art is transportive. But I think stories are unique in that, though they may carry their readers off, at the same time, the readers are carrying them.
Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. To keep tabs on what she is doing you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also send her an email at email@example.com.