HPU “Imagineering” Spotlight

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My friend Sam Joseph, who teaches a game programming class at Hawaii Pacific University, recently asked me if I would answer a few questions about storytelling for his students, who’d recently read my novella Jellyfish Dreams. Here are my answers reprinted in full. It’s a pretty good gloss on my thoughts about writing, narrative theory, publishing, and videogames–that last of which I don’t know nearly enough about…yet.

1. Introduction

I suppose I’d just like to say hello to everyone, to virtually shake your hands and express my sympathies for your being in Dr. Joseph’s class. Above all, I want to thank you for spending some time with Jellyfish Dreams. An author without readers is a very sad creature indeed.

2. Can you give us details on how you became interested in writing?

I can think of a number of ways to go about answering this question, all of them equally true. Let’s do this one: I spent about ten years of my youth as a hardcore freestyle BMX’er. For those of you who don’t know, this is someone who rides around a parking lot all day on a small bicycle doing tricks. In a freestyle competition, you ride around for a certain period of time, a few minutes maybe, and do a bunch of tricks, but you don’t just do a bunch of tricks–you string them together into a narrative of sorts. It’s not representative of anything outside of itself, so if it’s a story it’s a very abstract sort of one. Nonetheless, a good rider doesn’t just bang out insane trick after insane trick. He (or she, but usually he) makes the one flow into the next in such a way that there’s a kind of sum-greater-than-its-parts thing that obtains. I eventually quit riding because I wasn’t suicidal enough to excel, and then I picked up the guitar and learned the art of the guitar solo (metal, jazz, flamenco) and, I’ve realized in retrospect, it was much the same thing: little self-contained melodic units (“falsetas,” they’re called in flamenco) strung together. You see where this is headed. Eventually I discovered the sentence and found it was a kind of falseta in its own right. Meaning (aka propositional content) is a part of a sentence, of course, but so too are sound and texture. Words have overtones just as notes do. Naturally I was drawn to poetry early on, but I found–and continue to find– most of it too obscure. I wanted to tell stories that people could understand, and it turns out storytelling is just like BMX or flamenco: you make these little self-contained units—I’ve heard them called “narraticules”–and then you assemble them together into some larger, architectonic structure.

Were time no obstacle here, I’d sketch out at least five or six more miniature kunstlerromans (that’s for the German speaker among you–the rest of you can look it up).

3. What motivated, and perhaps more importantly kept you going, writing your first novel?

Somebody once said, “Find what you love and then let it kill you.” I guess that’s what I’m doing.

Anybody can start a novel. That’s easy. But finishing one really is a bitch. I abandoned several novels before I managed to finish one. I would always begin with some high concept in mind, write forty pages, and then it would sort of peter out and I’d give up. What was different about the first novel I finished, Big in Japan, was that I didn’t begin with a concept so much as a character, a very complicated, screwed-up guy who was a composite of a number of people I had known as well as some characters from fiction (Holden Caulfied from The Catcher in the Rye, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Stephen Daedelus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Humbert Humbert from Lolita). William Faulkner used to say that his characters would take over for him and he just had to follow them around and take notes. I never found it quite that easy, but it was the case that even if I didn’t know where the story was headed, I could at least figure out how Brain (that’s his name) would react to whatever event I’d just written about, and though it’s a very anxiety-ridden way to write, i.e. sans outline, you can write a whole book like that. Somebody, E.L. Doctorow maybe (I’ve also seen Robert Stone credited), compared writing a novel to driving cross country in the dark; you can only see so far in front of you with your headlights, but you can clear the continent that way.

There’s an even more pragmatic side to this question, of course. Back when I was working on Big in Japan, I worked in the hardcover sales department of a big publishing company in New York City. Basically I worked my butt off three days a week and generally stayed at the office well into the evening. As a result, I could give the other two days to surreptitiously working on my novel. And I guess once you reach a certain number of pages, it’s harder to call it quits than to tell yourself you’re going to finish the thing someday. It requires a kind of faith really, the sort of absurd leap Sam Rogers might bristle at.

What else kept me motivated, and keeps me motivated, is reading. I love stories as much as I ever have. Whenever I read/see/hear something good, I want to go make something. Lately I’m on a graphic novel kick, which is getting expensive. I’m also pretty addicted to Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

4. What do you think electronic publishing is doing to the art of writing? Is the future bright?

I hesitate to make any predictions about where the business is headed. Recently the two biggest English-language publishers, Penguin and Random House, merged. They’ll now have something like 25% of the market share. Amazon’s a real juggernaut, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some other publishers joining forces soon. This is not altogether a bad thing. Because of the ebook, I was able to get Jellyfish Dreams out there for $1.99. A traditional publisher would have charged way more for the print book, and really how much money are you willing to risk on a writer you’ve never heard of? The downside of the new paradigm for writers is that the artistic middle class is probably going away. For roughly fifty years there, it was possible in America–very difficult, but possible–to make a decent living as a writer. This was because, basically, the publishers owned the means of production and the product had a certain intrinsic value. Nowadays all of that’s up in the air. In another sense, though, things maybe haven’t changed as much as we think they have. However democratized publishing may become in terms of the technological capacity to make your work available, as long as we have finite lifespans, there’s an ineradicable element of competition. The only difference now is that, where most of the competition used to happen pre-pub, now it happens post-pub. In other words, instead of publication being the finish line, it’s now just the starting gate.

I argued for another bright side of ebooks back when the Kindle was new. I was wrong about one thing though: kids aren’t about to relinquish three-dimensional books. In fact, they may hold onto them more steadfastly than adults too, and with good cause: pictures! and pop-ups!

5. Any advice you would give to aspiring writers? Research material?

As for advice, I always tell my students what Vonnegut said to his; that is, if you’re trying to decide between writer and something else, you should almost certainly choose the something-else. And if there is nothing else, then you already know it; you are, in effect, condemned to be a writer–congratulations! Learning to write well is an alternately grueling and exhilarating process of reading and writing in an ongoing feedback loop. I can’t stress the reading part enough. Read everything, cannibalize all those great writers who’ve come before you, absorb their mana. After that, all you have to do is write the book you’d like to read. In my experience, it never gets any easier–though you do develop some confidence in the process. You have to, or you’ll lose your mind.

Not sure what you mean by research material. There are plenty of how-to books on writing. Some are good, most not so good. I like Samuel R. Delaney’s book About Writing. Lance Olsen’s Architectures of Possibility is a good how-to/intro to experimental fiction. Screenwriters are generally better at talking about structure than fiction writers. I recommend John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and Robert McKee’s Story. I also really like Scout McCloud’s Understanding Comics. And Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse is a primer on narratology that I like, but be warned: it’s very heady stuff. Lately I’m interested in Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale. Really the most important how-to books for a writer, though, are the stories and novels that you love. Read them over and over again until they yield up their secrets. I did an MFA in Creative Writing too while working a full-time job, so for me I’m not sure it was all that helpful, but if you can arrange your life properly, 2-3 years of intense study with fellow devotees of the craft can only be a good thing.

On a separate note, I do find I do far more research for my own fiction than I used to. Early on, you’ve got all sorts of personal or quasi-personal stuff you’ll want to draw on. You write what you know or almost know. Later, you may find you want to write stuff you don’t know. And so you learn it. It’s a fun job that way. Lately I read popular science more than anything else. On my desk before me right now are the following: Darwin Among the Machines, Is God a Mathematician?, Decoding the Universe, and Can Animals and Machines Be Persons?

6. Do you like computer games? What’s your favorite?

To be honest, I love the idea of computer games, but I rarely play one. Largely this is because I was a hardcore Nintendo addict as a kid (I even subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine) and it made me pretty anxious and maybe messed up my eyes too (my real-life baseball game went to hell). The last game I saw through to the end was probably The Legend of Zelda. That said, I sort of peek over my students’ shoulders and learn about games that way. BioShock is one I’d like to try. I’ve come pretty close to buying a game system a few times in the last year or so, but I’m honestly afraid of the time sink it might become, both for me and my kids (like Sam, I’ve got three). I’m sure I’ll give in one of these days.

I’ve been playing around with interactive fiction a bit lately, and while I’m conceptually interested in it, it hasn’t quite taken my scalp off yet.

7. What do you think makes a great novel? Does it have any relation to what makes a great game?

This one calls for a book-length treatment really, but if I must be brief, and I must, I guess I’d say something like “proportion.” That is to say, a novel is a work of art, and like any painting or symphony, its parts need to have the right aesthetic rhythm, if you will. A great novel is one where you can’t remove a single sentence without upsetting the whole. It’s organic, a life form. And just as each of your cells has the blueprint for you in it, so with a novel. Every little narraticule reduplicates the larger narrative somehow. This is a Platonic Novel I’m dreaming up here, of course; no novel by mortals can ever quite live up to it.

More prosaically, I like novels that marry style with a forward-moving plot. It’s a hard thing to do. it’s almost like the one necessarily comes at the expense of the other. But I don’t know that that has to be so. Also, an element of suspense is nice. If the reader doesn’t care what happens next, why then you’ve lost her. Much of this might be species-specific to the novel, but certainly suspense relates to games.

What I find most interesting about game design is that–presumably, and I know nothing about this really–the designer would seem to have to invent not just a world of objects but a sort of moral universe as well. There are rewards and punishments. I’ve never played BioShock, but I’m told that sometimes killing a baby is the best alternative you’ve got. Nonetheless, you’ve got to pay for it somehow. Now that’s darned interesting. And of course a novelist must construct a moral universe too. The difference is that there’s the force of inevitability in a novel because it’s already written, whereas in a game the future is more open. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the novel is inherently deterministic, whereas the game is an outspoken proponent of free will. Each has its merits and liabilities, I suppose. To be fair, I need to say that I’m talking about a fairly traditional conception of the novel here. There have been certain experiments in the form that are allied to games and hypertext. One notable example is B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which was a bunch of loose pages in a box, to be read in any order the reader chose.

And then there is the matter of character. I generally find it difficult to separate out character from plot; they grow out of one another. Henry James put it this way: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” So a great game, I suppose, would offer fully fleshed-out characters and a (very large) solution set of possible worldlines, though none that go too far afield as to be implausible for that character, if that makes any kind of sense. Like Mary might slay the dinosaur or eat the cheese, but we all know she would never ride the ferris wheel; it’s not in her nature. If she does ride the ferris wheel, well then that’s a turning point in her life and she can’t go back to being same old, degree-zero Mary again. Yeah, maybe that’s something I’d like to see in a game: a character who develops and learns, and not just in terms of weaponry and such, but morally somehow. Round characters as opposed to flat, to borrow E.M. Forster’s terminology. No doubt you’ll tell me that’s been done. By all means, teach me. I want to learn.

8. Are you able to live on the money you make with your novels? Did you published something before the era of electronic publishing?

Far from it. Because of my writing, I am able to buy a latte instead of a regular coffee once in a while. Otherwise, it’s my teaching that pays the bills.

Big in Japan, my first novel, came out in 2009, just as e-publishing was starting to explode. Someday it may become an ebook too, but I think the publisher would like to sell through the print run first. And I’m glad it’s in print. It’s a beautiful object, with great art and french flaps. It’s the kind of book that isn’t fungible the way most trade publications are. It’s got intrinsic design value. It looks good on a shelf.

9. What do you usually do when you stuck or feel difficulty while writing?

I read.

Also, I freewrite. That is…wait, you know what, this will be good for the next question.

One more thing: I find the important breakthroughs happen either while I’m asleep or in the shower early in the morning. If you’re working regularly, even if it’s just an hour a day, your unconscious will keep working those other twenty-three hours and it’ll gift you with solutions to narrative problems that seemed insoluble before. I suggest keeping a notebook and a light-up pen by the side of your bed so you can record them. When these epiphanies come, they’re so forceful you think you couldn’t possibly forget them, but I assure you, if you don’t write them down, they’ll flee as precipitously as they came. Most of us have had to learn this the hard way.

10. What percentage of your success as a writer do you think comes from natural talent?

You all know Edison’s quote about genius being one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration? It’s the same for writing, absolutely. Successful writers are some of the hardest working people I know. It helps to have some natural aptitude, I guess, but I don’t know that I have any particularly. And even if some writers do, I’m not sure it makes the paperwork any easier. John Irving, one of America’s great novelists, happens to be dyslexic. Gay Talese, another great American writer and one of the pioneers of the “New Journalism,” says that for him every word is like passing a gallstone. And here’s how Gene Fowler (I’ve heard Douglas Adams credited too), another journalist, memorably put it: “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” So if you’re going to be a writer, you need to have some sort of transcendental motivation to keep you at your desk, bleeding. You’ve got to believe in the value of what you’re doing, usually despite reason. You’ve got to be a little mad, I guess, a little wounded, and little masochistic, or you’re like to give up.

The single best piece of advice I have for a would-be writer is simply this: begin. A writer is someone who writes, neither more nor less.

11. A parting challenge .

Now you’re going to freewrite for ten minutes. There is only one rule: your hand cannot stop moving for even a nanosecond. Don’t worry about meaning and sense. Don’t worry about misspellings or grammar. Just write, headlong and as fast as you can. Outwrite your mind. If your thoughts bottom out, you can write about how stupid this exercise is and what an idiot I am for proposing you do it. That’s fine. This is an evaluation-free zone. As long as you’re writing, you’re doing this correctly. Oh, you must be writing English words, and no doodling. On your marks, get set, go!

I do this quite a lot, and often I find it yields really strange images and surrealistic juxtapositions that I never could have planned. Even when you’re feeling blocked, you can always do this. It’s probably not true, but I like to imagine that the most hardcore surfer goes out and paddles around even when there are no waves to speak of.

Another challenge: by the end of the week, please find a famous director to buy the film rights to Jellyfish Dreams. If you each succeed, we’ll have a bidding war. Thank you.

p.s Sam asked about the importance of twists in novels and their possible existence in games:

It’s funny, but the word “twist” hardly ever comes up in lit theory, etc., but we all know one when we experience it. I suppose a twist is akin to what Aristotle called peripeteia; that is, a sudden reversal that comes at a key point in a tragedy. That sounds all well and good, but it’s a fairly tough thing to nail down. Often it has to do with a sudden enlargement of a character’s, or the reader’s, or both’s (that a word?), knowledge that casts all that came before in a new light, as in But of course! Tyler Durden and the narrator are the same dude! or Holy shit, I’ve been banging my mom! In any event, the twist has to do with a story running counter to the audience’s expectations (it’s quite close to irony this way), and this is something I often bring up in writing classes. It is the writer’s job to conjure an imaginary scenario, to anticipate a reader’s responses, and to actively choose to gratify some expectations and frustrate others.

Often at the revision stage in my own writing, I will go hunting for anything that smacks of cliche (i.e. death from overuse, e.g. “butterflies in my stomach”) and then “twist” them somehow (“caterpillars in my duodenum”?). This is important both at the level of story and at the level of the sentence. An example of the latter: in an early draft of Big in Japan, I remember I had the protagonist pick up a gun for the first time and I wrote something like, “It was heavier than he’d expected.” Recognizing that as a cliche, I revised it to, “He was surprised by how heavy it wasn’t. It was light, glinting and filling head”–this allowed me not only to twist out of a cliche but to pivot on the double meaning of “light” and bring back some imagery from earlier in the book too. In Arthur C. Clarke’s famous story “The Nine-Billion Names of God,” some scientists construct a computer for some crazy mystics who believe that if we could just nail down all the names of God, the universe would come to a close. The scientists–and we readers–know that this is nonsense, and then, of course (But of course!), once the computations are done, the stars begin to go out. Flannery O’Connor believed the measure of a good story was that it felt both surprising and inevitable at once. It’s that surprise piece where the twist comes in. So try it: take some archetypal story line–Cinderella would work–then go in and see how you can vandalize it, screw it up, without destroying the illusion altogether.

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