A Lesson Learned   Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

As a writer, I’m not often troubled by the so-called impostor syndrome. I have enough confidence in what I do to move forward on the assumption that what I write will be worth a reader’s time and money. There are, however, practitioners of the art of storytelling who can leave me baffled by my own audacity. I read their work and find myself wondering what makes me think I’m in any way good enough to do this. (Mercifully, these spells always pass.)

One of those writers died on the day I started writing this piece (April 15, 2019). His name was Gene Wolfe.

Other greats in the science fiction world have passed in recent years, people whose work has entertained and inspired me, while also teaching me things through their work about how stories can be told. Like all science fiction fans, these losses sadden me, even as I reflect on their great legacies. But this loss comes closer to home. Gene Wolfe taught me something very important about storytelling, a thing that seems perfectly obvious when you hear it, but doesn’t always make itself plain while you work your way up the learning curve.

The lesson is this: there can be no deadwood in the story. Everything must contribute to the whole, whether it’s a detail in the world build, a major element of character development, or a twist in the plot. You don’t just drop things in and walk on, adding elements just because you think it will make the story trendier, for example. There needs to be a reason for it all, consistent with the internal logic of the story.

Obvious, right? It sounded so to me, but until Mr. Wolfe imparted that lesson, I’d never thought it through before. But it isn’t the soundness of that advice that makes his passing a source of personal sadness. It’s the memory of it. He told me this in person, using an element of one of my own stories by way of illustration.

This encounter took place at the World Fantasy Convention held in Tucson, AZ in 1991. The convention programming included a chance to have a completed short story critiqued by one of the published authors in attendance. I had a story ready to make the rounds, and delayed submission long enough to use it for that event. It was a pleasant November evening when all the participants gathered to see which pros we’d been matched with. As I recall, we were crowded into a hallway in the hotel, and one by one Big Names walked out of a room and called a lesser name forward. I was talking to a friend when someone said “Thomas Watson,” and turned to see none other than Gene Wolfe searching the assembled faces in the hallway. I made my presence known (I remember something simple, like saying “Here,” but my friend remembers me muttering “yikes” under my breath) and shook hands with him. We left the crowd behind and went out to sit at a table in the central courtyard of the hotel.

Many of the details from that conversation have faded from memory. I remember Mr. Wolfe being encouraging, but very honest. I still have the original version of the story. Today I can see that it needed a lot more work, but it was as good as I could make it, back then. There was no way I could recognize this in 1991, lacking as I was in essential feedback. The concept of beta readers was years in the future, and all the feedback I’d received for my fiction to that point had come from a small writing group (that had come to an end by then) and the rare personal response from editors as they rejected a manuscript. I was doing my best and hoping against hope that it would eventually be good enough.

That evening I received feedback in a big way. Mr. Wolfe found the story engaging but badly flawed. He enumerated the flaws and suggested new-to-me ways to look at storytelling that might help. He was direct in his criticism, but never let it become too personal. He didn’t come across as the seasoned professional talking to the wannabe; he did not talk down to me. It was a serious conversation between writers. Mr. Wolfe made it that by taking my desire to write seriously. Somewhere in that short conversation he brought up the concept that inspired this essay. Everything in a story should be in the story for a very good reason.

Beginning writers often leave deadwood scattered in their prose, anything from useless dialog that’s meant to be witty, to exposition that tells readers nothing they really need to know. In the years since, I’ve learned to recognize this, and such failings have made a number of books, for me, one-and-done for a given author. More to the point, I’ve been made more aware of the concept in my own fiction. Yes, it’s obvious, after you have it spelled out. Many things work that way. Anyone can swing an ax, but have someone show you the best way to hold and balance an ax and your chances of missing your foot go up significantly.

To illustrate the point, he asked a question about the story in hand. He asked why a particular character was an African-American.

At this point I need to commit a digression and offer spoiler warnings. First, the warnings. If you have a copy of my short story collection 179 Degrees From Now and have not yet read the story “Crossing the Pond,” be aware that I’m about to spoil it for you. Can’t be helped, so read on at your own risk.

Now, the digression, one that in our unsettled times is surely necessary to avoid readers turning away at this point. It has to do with Mr. Wolfe’s singling out that one character with his question. I was relating my experience to a group of fellow sci-fi fans and writers at a science fiction convention not long ago. I got as far as Mr. Wolfe’s question regarding the African-American character, and found myself handed a textbook example of “triggering.” A person in the group cut me off with a burst of outrage directed at the fact that the question had singled out the African-American character. “He shouldn’t have done that!” When I said there’d been a good reason for the question, I was told in no uncertain terms by a second person that there couldn’t be a good reason for singling out that character by his race, that it was wrong and racist. I repeated that there was indeed a good reason and that racism, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with it, and was ready to explain why their shared assumption was off base. But the echo chamber around them was impenetrable by that time, and the explanation was never heard.

Listening to the world around you for the purpose of responding, instead of understanding, is a bad habit. Others have pointed this out before me. It clearly requires reiteration.

But perhaps you will reserve judgment and read on, spoilers or no. The question was asked in the context of all elements of the story serving a purpose, and adding up to a story that means something. In this particular tale (of which “Crossing the Pond” is a significantly rewritten version) the African-American character is a scholar who specializes in the life and times of Henry David Thoreau. The scholar is terminally ill and visiting Walden Pond one last time. Thoreau appears and asks the scholar if they have met before. (These elements were in the version of the story Mr. Wolfe read.) The answer is that they have not, and that Thoreau may be thinking of an ancestor of the scholar.

Mr. Wolfe knew enough of Thoreau’s story to know the man was an Abolitionist, and in fact was a “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” Somewhere in his writings, Thoreau mentions briefly encountering an African-American headed north. He gave the man some food and sent him on his way. It isn’t known whether or not this man was actually an escaped slave, or if he found his way to life as a free man. Reading of this encounter, my mind concocted a daydream that in the course of time became a short work of fantasy. Mr. Wolfe was looking to see if I’d been aware of these things while I wrote the tale. Had I chosen to make the character in question African-American because of this history and quietly woven this connection into the story? My answer of “yes” was what he hoped to hear; he was evidently pleased and favorably impressed, which certainly gave my confidence a much needed boost. The shade of Thoreau was there in the role of the Ferryman, helping yet another soul to a different sort of freedom. That very idea had been the germ of the original story. Mr. Wolfe picked out that character because the man’s fate and Thoreau’s history were the elements that gave the story its meaning. He wanted to hear me say I’d done this deliberately. The character’s race was important to the story, but was not in and of itself the reason the question of race was brought up.

I asked if I had failed to make the reason for the character’s race and Thoreau’s appearance obvious enough. He smiled and warned me against being too easy on readers, unless I wanted to deliberately insult their intelligence. I can honestly say reading Gene Wolfe has never insulted my intelligence, and those of you familiar with his work know exactly what I mean by that. To those who have not read this author, his fiction is frequently “no easy road,” to quote one of his own characters. I’ve endeavored to avoid belaboring the obvious in my own work ever since. Making sure each element of the story carries its weight is one way to accomplish this.

In every life there are moments that, when you look back on them, are revealed to be turning points. That all-too-brief conversation with one of the Grand Masters of the genre was one of mine, although it took the perspective of time passed to make this clear to me. Until that night, writing fiction had been a matter of shooting from the hip and hoping it sounded right. After that night I started looking at writing fiction as a controlled process. It was never again quite the act of unbridled spontaneity it had been, even if I never did start using outlines. I may still be writing by the seat of my pants, but these days I have a much better sense of direction. My conversation with Gene Wolfe made me think about how I do this thing I do, instead of just putting my head down and going for it. Once I started down that path, things were never the same again. I will always be grateful to him for that.

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