What did I learn at Clarion West [5]: Everybody gathers in the kitchen for a nice cup of tea

Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
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Did you know that the essence of story is conflict?

I mean — I probably knew that, actually, even before Clarion West. I’m sure I’ve (correctly) identified the central conflict in a story on a multiple choice test as “man vs. nature” “man vs. man” or “man vs. himself.” And even before Clarion West I probably had some dim notion that if you get a story idea, like “I want to write about a werewolf in New Orleans,” it’s not really a story idea until you have given that werewolf a problem to solve. “Going around being a werewolf” sounds cool and everything, but it’s not a story.

Before Clarion, the big problem I needed to solve (other than my submitaphobia) was the sophomore novel problem. I had cleared the first important hurdle: I had succeeded in producing a thing of novel length that more or less resembled a novel. (It took four or five years, uncountable hours of typing, and three computers.)

Every piece of advice said pretty much the same thing: while you’re trying to sell the first novel, work on the next novel. I think the idea is that you probably won’t sell the first one, but eventually you’ll have a second one, plus a better idea of how the selling process works, and valuable feedback which will improve the second one, and maybe you’ll sell that second one. (Repeat process as many times as necessary, accumulating “trunk novels” along the way.)

This seemed totally reasonable.

But I couldn’t do it.

I had the usual issues with the selling process on novel #1, and that was depressing, and being depressed didn’t enhance my writing capabilities. But that wasn’t actually the problem. The problem was that I couldn’t seem to advance any subsequent novel idea beyond the 40,000 word mark.

This was… frustrating. To say the least. Because 40,000 words is actually a pretty big investment of time and energy. It’s almost NaNoWriMo success. It’s about halfway to a regular novel. Using my Frankenstein analogy, it was like I did all the research, all the grave-robbing, all the surgery, all the minion-aquiring, all the lightning-collector building, and zapped the heck out of a creature that ACTUALLY CAME TO LIFE. It sat up, took a few breaths, called me “mommy.” Then it died.

I had no idea what I was doing wrong. But I had started to fear that the first novel was a fluke, like when you hit a bullseye the first time you toss a dart, and every throw after that hits the wall (or your friends, or a pitcher of beer…) It was a trick I had done, yes, but I didn’t understand how and couldn’t repeat it. It was my frustration over this that made attending Clarion West become a goal — I sensed that Clarion would provide the answer I sought.

(Also, I have to credit the lovely and talented David Levine for posting a really interesting series of essays about his experiences there.)

Because the Clarion method consists of writing, critiquing, analyzing, and generally obsessing over short stories, some people think it’s only about the short story — it’s not for would-be novelists. Au contraire! It is in fact about story and short stories are just the length it makes sense to tackle during a 6-week workshop. Everything you learn about story can translate to novels (or screenplays, or whatever).

But this particular revelation I have to credit to something that was aimed at novelists — the Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which was sitting around the Clarion West house during (I think) Nalo Hopkinson’s week. Writing the Breakout Novel is based on the premise that there’s a kind of formula to novels that “break out” — become really successful — and that this formula can be both explained and consciously imitated.

It doesn’t really tell you how to write a novel that will, in fact, become a runaway bestseller. There are waaaay too many variables involved for that. But what it does tell you (I think) is some things you might be doing wrong that will prevent your novel from becoming a runaway bestseller. And these things are important, because they might also prevent your novel from selling to a publisher. They might even prevent you from being able to finish writing it in the first place, which is what I figured out.

The workbook explains the premise and takes you through detailed exercises in applying its principles. He talks about stakes, and character agency (agency was one of Nalo’s big teaching themes) and conflict, but the chapters that really struck home for me were the ones about low tension The first chapter on that is called “Low Tension Part I: The Problem with Tea.”

The problem with tea, as I recall, is the tendency to let your characters — after they solve a big problem — sit around the kitchen enjoying a nice cup of tea before setting off on their next adventure.

Oh. Oh, NO. No. No WAY.

It was like — all the lights went off at once and the buzzer started going DING DING DING and the big sign started flashing — because the instant I read his description of the tea phenomenon, I realized that I do that ALL THE TIME.

In part, it comes from what Peter Straub described once (in person, so my wording is not precise) as having the characters get coffee and close the curtains and do all the other things you have them do while you’re waiting for a real idea to strike. You solved the last problem and you don’t know what happens next, so you have the characters do the things that real people might do at that point. You know. Boring things.

And you probably start out knowing that people having tea isn’t really the story — it’s just you trying to get back into inhabiting the world of your characters — but once you’ve gone to the trouble of writing all those words about tea, it can start to feel like it must be part of the story. So everything gradually gets buried under the accumulating detritus of dull transition scenes.

But there’s another reason we do it — to make less work for ourselves. Putting in the kind of small, secondary conflicts that keep transitions interesting requires thinking very hard about them, and that can be frustrating, because come on — they’re not that important, really. Are they?

But wait — if they’re not that important, why are they in there at all?

Arrghh! Why is this so hard?

Ironically, the “tea” revelation sank in partly because some of the scenes he analyzes in the workbook are from “breakout” novels that I didn’t particularly like — The DaVinci Code, Left Behind, and Twilight. So I was able to observe the techniques of tension-creation without being distracted by getting interested in the prose or the characters or the story. This helped me learn to see story tension as a thing in itself.

It also gave me some insight into how books that seemed so awful to me could nevertheless manage to find a huge audience — because they might get a lot of things wrong, but they get that one super-important thing right. Plus, it provided an answer for a question that has puzzled me since high school: why is Stephen King so compelling? I don’t mean, “why is The Shining compelling?” What I wondered is, “why can I read a Stephen King book I don’t even particularly enjoy, such as Christine or Needful Things, and still find myself scarfing it down like it’s Tim’s Cascade Jalapeño chips dipped in cottage cheese?”

Now I had an answer: because King is a natural master of nonstop tension. (My previous working theory was “deal with dark powers.”)

Hey, did you know that if you Google for images of teacups, you might get something called a 'teacup pig'?
Teacup pigs don’t really have anything to do with this essay, but aren’t they cute?

I was not naturally gifted in that direction. In some ways I had the impulses of a lit fic writer, inclined not only to let characters sit and drink tea in the kitchen, but also to tell you all about the teacup they were drinking from. (In my case it was probably a magic teacup, or a haunted teacup, but still.) I liked sensory details. I liked dialog. I liked fussing over how sentences were worded. I liked ambiguity and surrealism and dislikable protagonists and… well, you know. The stuff I talked about during the last essay.

Realizing all this — in a flash, a real Road to Damascus moment — I knew why my novels kept dying at the 40,000 word mark. It was the same reason that 40,000 words isn’t generally regarded as a novel. That’s about the point where you’ve exhausted whatever idea caused you to start writing in the first place. You’ve resolved the first important conflict, everybody drinks tea, the end.

So I was doing the tea thing, and this was making it hard to get the story going again. But in a way that was just a symptom. The reason I couldn’t get anything beyond 40,000 words was because I kept trying to proceed forward from the wrong 40,000 words. If I got things to that point, and didn’t already know what needed to happen next, that was usually because of something I hadn’t done in the first part. The characters didn’t have enough going on — their relationships didn’t have enough tension — their environments weren’t threatening enough — their personal stakes weren’t high enough — some essential ingredient of conflict was missing. And if it was missing, then I had to go back to the beginning and put that in there even if it meant rewriting the whole thing from the beginning. And if I got to 40,000 words and it died again, then I would have to go back to the beginning again.

Much as I hated to admit it, these novel deaths were caused by basic design flaws, as if I’d made something that resembled a living creature, but lacked a heart. It was yet another area where I had been working backward in the wrong way — trying to put the “sensory detail and precise wording” frosting roses on a cake that didn’t actually taste very good.

Words are cheap. It was hard for me to see that. It’s hard for a lot of writers to see that, even though we — of all people — ought to know better. Re-thinking a scene, or a story, or a whole novel isn’t always the most fun kind of writing work. It’s abstract, tedious and frustrating. It can feel like you’re getting absolutely nowhere. But I had to learn to do it, because not doing it was killing every book I tried to write.

Writing is harder than it looks, even when you’re writing Twilight or The DaVinci Code.