Monday, June 08, 2009

Why Flying Casual is a Bad Idea

Some days I argue with myself. The inner provocateur rails against my decision to finish a science fiction novel, castigating and berating me in a south shore New Jersey accent that contains not even an ounce of compassion. Fighting back sometimes absorbs energies that otherwise might be more productively used, but what am I supposed to do? Rope-a-dope doesn't work so well when the opponent is in your head.

Here's a recent example: What is the best way to present future history that doesn't come off like Star Trek, which is to say, so fantastical as to be irrelevant? (I'm not taking the position that Star Trek lacks relevance, per se, but that the far-flung context renders it palatable only to a narrow audience.) I go back and forth on this, wanting to lay out my grand scheme on the one hand but on the other wanting to maintain focus on characters without diverging into a wide lens view. But this is scifi, rants my nemesis, you have to create a galactic context!

It's so different to be a writer of this stuff, when most of my life has been spent as an avid fan of scifi. Rather than having the luxury of sitting back and throwing darts whenever an author does something I don't agree with, I struggle with ways to keep the audience engaged. The risk is that by going too panoramic, the novel will become an exercise in space opera. We already have Dune, the peak of the genre, and I'm not interested in presenting every historic detail of how we came to the present moment in which the novel is set; though I have created this history, every time I veer into descriptions of these events it completely derails the narrative and makes the book out to be something it is not, namely space opera.

But this is scifi! How else are we to know the story isn't unfolding contemporaneously? (My nemesis likes them big words.)

Another question is how to present the villain of the piece without revealing his badness. I want him to be a part of the story and for intimations of his malevolence to come through in small things, not to be writ large. In posing this particular problem, my inner provocateur is not only unsympathetic but devolves into mocking me with quotes of bad dialogue:

I don't know, fly casual.

This is every bit as helpful as Han Solo's advice in Return of the Jedi: not at all. In that instance, our favorite smuggler is telling his Wookiee pilot to disguise the fact that they are approaching the bad guys in a stolen space shuttle. He tells Chewy to "fly casual", which ostensibly means to blend in with all the other Imperial craft zipping around. Apparently in the Imperial Flyer's Handbook, a pilot's success is rated by how casual they are.

Though this approach is successful for Han Solo and friends, it doesn't work for writers of novels.

What I have to fall back on is my experience as a reader. Looking at effective storytelling in such books as, say, Dune, it is clear from the start who is bad. Though it seems a good idea to be tricky and lure the reader into a false sense that all is well, what truly works is the opposite. This is not just about following what has come before but in understanding that presentation of a clear protagonist assists the reader.

A friend once proposed creating a conflict-free story, in which basically nothing happens. It would be an experiment in style and push the frontier of narrative structure -but would it be storytelling? Ultimately you come up against this problem when crafting a story: it has to adhere to basic rules. By taking away conflict, you remove structure and are left with writing that is experimental, yes, but better relegated to a notebook. My nemesis would like nothing better than to keep me at that level, and in fact for many years has succeeded in doing so.

To "fly casual" is to write what I want and eschew standards of good storytelling, a method I've followed for a long time. Funny how I never used to have these arguments in those days, things were simpler then!

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