Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Levels of Writing

Over the holiday, I got a lot of writing done. I also, somewhat to my surprise, got a lot of non-writing writing done, by which I mean I outlined what revision of Orsolya must entail, planned the events of two different stories basically to completion (though to be fair they're also ones with less intensive world building than I usually have to do, since they're both contemporary), and connected several different story shards that have been floating in my head into what will be, when I am done with it in maybe five to ten years, an epic.

More concisely, I plotted.

I've been reading Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB) and naturally I'm drawing connections. The book discusses different levels of complexity on which we can choose to view things, where "things" refers to formal systems, machines, minds, etc. Stories, too, can be stratified.

The craft/mechanics level is the lowest (note that I'm using low/high in the sense that people talk about programming languages--distance from the hardware, not inherently a value judgment): the words and sentences used to construct a written page. This is where you sweat commas and search (or not) for synonyms to "said."

I don't honestly think about this level when I'm writing, at least not when I'm writing first drafts. When I revise academic papers I think about word choice mostly as a way to tighten up my ideas. Maybe if I thought about this more my writing would have more style.

The next level is events. What is going on? What happens next? This is the level at which writing happens the most: the level where the writer is in the story, thinking about the characters' actions in the scene at hand.

Above that patterns start happening to a much greater extent, and the different frames of abstraction meld together in ways that I don't think I could put in order convincingly. You can abstract from events in the direction of character, of theme, of plot. These levels can get confused, especially if the plot or theme is character-centric.

The character profiles I made earlier this month were a way of going up a level in the character dimension, but in a sense they also moved sideways because I was thinking about the characters in a context mostly independent of their stories. The revelations that occur certainly feed into the stories, but for most of the profiles I made the stories hadn't been written yet. Stefano Idoni would get a degree in computer science. How do I know? Intuition, not because of anything I wrote in his story.

Plotting lies more directly in the ladder from craft to events. In the context of a specific piece of writing, on average it is more central than character. Within plotting, you can have different levels of abstraction, from the scene outline to the synopsis to the broad strokes.

What surprises me, but probably shouldn't, is how much easier it is to plot when the writing is distant. Planning is important but nothing compared to implementation. The pseudocode skeleton for a program takes as much time as reading the first page of documentation.

What I like about plotting is being able to see the big picture, out of sheer virtue of starting out zoomed out. Seeing the patterns and connections, seeing the lay of the land. This is why I prefer books with tables of contents, why I don't like videos without transcripts, why I keep my syllabi.

So what about these patterns and connections? Patterns are everywhere. One that I appreciate in books done well and have never achieved in a story of my own is a good sense of pacing, of a pacing that seems built into the structure of the story. (This is the first I mention because earlier this month I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the pacing of which felt distinctly lopsided.) I write sprawling stories that go all over the place and aside from the rewrite of The Utopia Project have never undertaken a large-scale revision. That's okay. I'm a young author, in the sense of 1) I'm still technically a teenager 2) I'm only on book three and haven't ever been published. Bradbury lays out the track: quantity -> experience -> quality. I'm still producing quantity and building experience. Check back in a few years, see how my pacing has improved by then.

Note, also, that pacing could be considered an aspect of craft, which was previously identified as low-level.

Some exercises I've done that have helped illuminate structure more are reframing the story in a leaner format. Rewrite your story as if it were a fairy tale. Write a synopsis of it as if it were a movie.

Other patterns can be found in the connections. Since I get invested in characters rather than situations, almost always I headcanon lives for my characters before and after their story. I also don't go in for subtlety, so the story I write is going to be a big one that changes the course of the characters' lives. The question to ask is: what importance does this particular story have in character X's life? What does it mean to them and how does it change them? How does it change their world?

Moving ever outward, how does this story connect to the others in your canon? To the literary landscape at large? To your life? To the world? These questions may seem grandiose and they certainly aren't the ones foremost in my mind when I'm typing away at the event level. But when you sit back to plot, why not keep zooming out and see what you find?

The primary motivation for my revision plan for Orsolya was the admission of something that's bothered me for a while about the book: it's really, really not feminist. The pacing and character importances are also lopsided, but it was the un-feminism of the plot arc that made me realize I can't stand behind the story in its current state. (The un-feminism is also linked to the pacing/personnel issues.)

That brings me to theme. How much do most writers think about it? I don't know. I mostly don't, except when I'm plotting and something comes up that I find problematic. If you asked me what the themes of TUP, Orsolya, and Ubermadchen are, I could not say. Well, maybe "respect people," but that's quite vague.

The different levels blend, of course, in ideaspace and in time. GEB addresses this, and claims that intelligence consists at least in part of being able to switch between levels, namely, by moving upward to realms of greater abstraction and gaining a global perspective of your actions. Finding the connections, finding the patterns.


The music analogy is obvious, but just because I like drawing parallels: mechanics of playing the instrument is low-level, playing the piece at hand competently is one level up, bringing it to life and making it mean something is another. "Plotting" probably corresponds best with composing.

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