A Minor Diversion Into Artsy English Major Stuff

I’m doing another editing pass on Rogue Planet, in preparation for the final push to print. One of the interesting things about writing is when you set aside a document for a while, and then return to it, you can see things differently. Your brain is no longer filling in gaps automatically, and you have a distance from the text that enables you to approach it more objectively, as a reader more than as a writer.

I have read articles from writers that describe how they agonize over symbols and tropes and themes, how they decide that they’re going to use the Burger King Star Wars glasses their protagonist got as a 12 year old as a recurring symbol regarding hope and loss and memory and blah blah blah (I wish I still had mine, they’re apparently worth a bloody fortune now). Me, I don’t do that. I may agonize over extremely trivial details absolutely no one is going to care about, often just to add flavor text to a throwaway bit of dialogue somewhere. (For example, I just now looked up if it was “dialogue” or “dialog”, and the answer I got was “Meh, no one knows.”) I have often said I am not so much a world builder as a world explorer, and when it comes to writing, I am less author and more chronicler. The characters do what they do, and I write it down. When I find writing is difficult, when the words dribble out in the way molasses didn’t in Boston, 1919, it’s because I’m trying too hard to write a story as opposed to report a story.

Any symbolism, patterns, or themes that might appear in my work, therefore, are a total surprise to me, and yet, they’re there. Some literary type reading my work in the future (yeah, right) might see purpose or planning, but my writing, like the universe itself, is a thing in which someone may perceive patterns, not a thing in which patterns were placed. Any apparent order or purpose, in either reality or in my books, is entirely illusory.

Warning: Some extremely minor spoilers for Rogue Planet and the bonus prequel story follow.

In the first chapter of Rogue Planet, I have tossed in a minor bit of characterization regarding a character’s disbelief of living testimony vs. a handful of paperwork. The Official Word As Printed On The Official Form ought to trump any corrections from the actual subject of the document. (One sees this also in Wikipedia editing, where the actual subject of an article is not considered an authoritative source.) Much later in the book, a chunk of plot turns on this same concept, on a larger scale, where automated systems follow their orders to the letter, any contradictory facts be damned! This can be considered “intentional” in that I consider bureaucracy to be both hilarious and tragic, depending on how much hold it has over someone’s life, but I never consciously thought, “I’m going to echo this theme from the beginning to the end of the book.” It’s a trope I am drawn to, so it’s going to show up unless I go out of my way to avoid it. (Trying to write without tropes is a moronic thing to do, but you always get people who think you can tell a story, or create a character, without using any number of established tropes; this is like trying to build a house without using any tools or construction materials.)

Likewise, the cultures of Rogue Planet, descended from “social deviants” (as the characters in the prequel story (currently titled “Approval Not Required”) refer to them) tend to be very focused on deals, bargains, honor, and suchlike. Debt, obligation, and duty are all regularly referenced. A larger part of this is due to genre tropes: Vows, oaths, loyalty, and bonds of honor and friendship are all major aspects of this type of story. Backstabbing weasels are the villains. Today, when I was thinking about “Approval Not Required”, it occurred to me that all the main characters are engaged in plots, counter-plots, manipulations, etc. Without ever consciously intending to do so, I’d created an interesting thematic contrast: The criminal descendants are more concerned with honor and duty than the governing authority that sent their ancestors there in the first place. If I’d sat down and decided “Oh, I’m going to make a Big Statement here”, I think it would have been ham-handed and dull. I didn’t realize that there was a Statement until I looked over the two stories from a bit of a distance. In both cases, the characters, and their actions and values, grew out of the general tone of the story. At the time I was writing Rogue Planet, I had no plans to write the prequel story; as I wrote the prequel story, I was most interested in adding details and background to established facts. I never thought much about “theme” or “concept” or “meaning”.

So my point? Not sure, really. “Don’t believe everything your English teacher tells you” would be one, I suppose. “One of the best parts of creating is being surprised by your own creation” would be another. If I had any shred of religious sentiment, I would argue that this is why a deity would create a universe: To be surprised. As a GM, pretty much the same thing as being a god, only without any hint of respect or admiration, that is definitely one of my motivations: To create a world and then see what players do to it. Being an author is like that, but without the players. You’d think it would make as difference in the degree of surprise, but surprisingly (heh), it doesn’t. The imaginary people that live in my head are nearly as confusing as the presumably non-imaginary people that live outside my head.

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