Write Talk

Refusing the Call, or Devices of Potentially Limited Use

I don’t believe in observing all the "rules" of storytelling all the time, but when I become aware I’m breaking one, or decide to break one, I do like to acknowledge it and think over why I’m making the choice and whether there’s a trade-off and if it’s the right choice/trade-off for the story. I want to throw out something I’m thinking about, but not have the discussion really be about rules and conventions, per se; I want to talk about this specific one.


One of my very least favorite things in a quest narrative (or, if you want to be all prissy and Campbellian about it A Hero’s Journey) or any sort of story where the protag has to take up a torch of some kind is the initial "refusal of the call." So often, it strikes me as story water-treading. I, as a reader and audience member, know the call will be accepted. If the call’s not accepted, then there’s no story. The reasoning for the refusal often becomes perfunctory for just this very reason.

Romantic comedies are the worst offenders, or one of the worst anyway, in that the resistance is sometimes silly and sustained for wayyyyy too long. But that’s not really a quest narrative in the way I’m talking about it here, unless you view the romance as the quest, which would really make it an incredibly lame quest. I think of quest, I think Big Stakes and Personal Stakes, not just one or the other. I’m pretty sure you’ll instantly know the kind of story I’m talking about.

I’ll say again. I hate that refusal to the call business, at least when it’s given more than an inch of space. I’m thinking about this because Aztec Dance Tunes is a quest story. I don’t want to get too far into the details, because I’m not ready to talk about them yet, but for the sake of clarity there is a girl and she is given a huge, impossible task with huge, impossible stakes if she screws it up. And I think she can skip this step, the refusing the call step.

Because I think a character can be reasonably expected to know when something like this falls on top of them that there’s no easy way to get out from under it. I think it’s believable emotionally for a character to think, "Yeah, got hit by that. Even I know I have to do this now." And there can still be all the rational fear and doubt and why me? of it, but the story doesn’t stop for this step. I might also say that this particular character has been around some pretty weird things and is a reader (in other words, she knows how stories go) and whip-smart.

Why I bring this up is that you are a pretty savvy lot of readers and I want to see: Do you feel like you do need this step to buy into a character taking on a quest in a narrative like this? (And yes, I realize that execution is everything and there are no details here; it’s not something I’ll hold you to!) Or are you impatient with this dithering step too? Discuss.

p.s. I promise, swear, cross my heart and stick pins and needles in something nearby, that I’ll catch up on email before I leave for BEA. Because after that, comes Wiscon, and after that, sleep. So if I don’t answer now, there will be no answering!

More Aztecy Goodness

Aztecs(This is a post to skip if you aren’t interested in my obessive ramblings while working on this book. I wouldn’t blame you.)

I’m still loving the hell out of Aztec Dance Tunes. It’s a hard book to write, sure, but aren’t they all? Anyway, here’s a couple of fun things.

I made another playlist, this one with a few of the long songs I wanted to put on the first one but which wouldn’t fit. (I couldn’t get all of them on this one either.) This playlist isn’t necessarily made up so much of songs in which I hear the novel as songs which aren’t off and strike me as good writing background music for this book. Or at least that I think will be. It’s mostly long songs. And a few short ones because. I’m now rotating out the two discs (still Podless, oh wealthy benefactor).

ADT Long Songs #1 Playlist

Scatterheart / Bjork
Car / Catherine Wheel
April The 14th (Part I) / Gillian Welch
Draining The Pool For You / The Go-Betweens
The New Cobweb Summer / Lambchop
23 Minutes In Brussels / Luna (Live)
The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be / The Magnetic Fields
I Think I Need A New Heart / The Magnetic Fields
Miles Away / Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fourth of July / Galaxie 500
Your Dirty Answer / Kristin Hersh
Limbo / Throwing Muses
I Dream A Highway / Gillian Welch

In general, the music I’m putting on these is slightly older than what I’m listening to the rest of the time. And I’m recycling several of the same artists — people who have made a great deal of music that I love — maybe because this book is also drawing on all sorts of things I’ve loved for ever and ever and ever. I like the familiarity and also that little buzz you get from hearing something you haven’t been listening to a million times a week already but still love. I’m mostly sticking this one up here because some of you cottoned to the first (and there will be many more, I’m sure, before this sw-et b-tch is done), but also to see what long songs you have to recommend… (Long song = 5 minutes plus.)

And here, as a bonus, is one of the best, grossest bits of my research reading that I don’t plan on using and can’t help but share. I like to call it "The Misunderstanding":

As discontent arose, the Mexica themselves precipitated their own violent departure. Obeying the promptings of Huitzilopochtli’s priests, they had approached Achitometl, one of the Calhua magnates, asking for his beautiful daughter as their "sovereign" and "wife of Huitzilopochtli." Not understanding the implications of this request, Achitometl acceded to the honor; his daughter went to Tizaapan, where she was splendidly arrayed and sacrificed. Following an old custom, the body was flayed and a priest donned her skin in an ancient agricultural rite symbolizing the renewal of life. The unsuspecting chieftain Achitometl, invited to participate in the concluding festivities, suddenly recognized the skin of his daughter on the body of the priest. The outraged Culhua took arms and were joined by others and, in the wild melee of javelins and arrows, the Mexica were once again driven into the reeds and brackish swamps of Lake Tetzcoco.

From The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend

I know you’re wondering why I wouldn’t use such a spectacular gem. But, you see, Aztec Dance Tunes is funny. It’s not just funny, but it’s supposed to be funny enough that this particular anecdote won’t quite fit. Misunderstanding or no. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall of an Aztec bar.)

Aztecy Goodness

Fundacion_1 I started writing a new book a couple of weeks ago. It’s another YA and it’s called (for now, at least) Aztec Dance Tunes. I’m head-over-heels in love with it. With the idea and the characters and the research and how weird it is. I’m so in love with it, I don’t even feel guilty for setting aside Roanoke while I write it. Roanoke’s just not where my head is at right now. It’s in this other place instead.

I’m also trying to write it a bit more deliberately (though not snail’s pace) than I usually do for a first draft. I’m focusing on a chapter at a time, trying to do a chapter or two a week, and fine tuning what I’ve written for a couple of days before moving on. All the while figuring out the larger arcs in the book. And finding little scraps of plays and poems and songs, etc., to start out the various sections with. And reading lots of weird, interesting research material about all sorts of things that may or may not make it in.

Anyway, I often pick out a working soundtrack when I start a new project. I choose songs that capture the feeling or theme of certain incidents or moments I think will be in the book, or sometimes it’s a song that I associate with a character and what they’re experiencing in the book. It helps. Christopher’s work on digitizing our music has made it easier and even more fun this time. (BTW, thanks to all who have commented and sent tips for managing the library.)

Last night I burned my very first iTunes CD, which will serve as the initial soundtrack for writing this book (future playlists to come as needed). I thought I’d throw it up here, because I’m a little in love with all of these songs at the moment. If you were me you could totally see a book written between these lines:

The ADT Playlist

Mouthful Of Air / Catherine Wheel
Your Ghost / Kristin Hersh
Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft / Robert Pollard
Bucky Done Gun / M.I.A.
(I Was Born In A) Laundromat / Camper Van Beethoven
Galaxies / Laura Veirs
The Moon / Cat Power
Velvet Days / Kristin Hersh
Life Is But A Dream / Tanya Donelly
Monster Hospital / Metric
Service and Repair / Calexico
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off / The Magnetic Fields
Low / Cracker
Season of the Witch / Luna
A King And A Queen / Okkervil River
Static On The Radio / Jim White
Wicked And Weird / Buck 65
We Could Send Letters / Aztec Camera
Humans From Earth / T-Bone Burnett
Run Devil Run / Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins*

(*Y’all managed to change my mind on this one; it’s just that one track that’s imitation Neko.)

Old & New Tricks

Hannah has had a series of excellent posts about writing in the last little while. The most recent one deals with "sidestepping the learning curve" and it reminded me of a section at the very beginning of The Green Book, but I’m only getting time to type it in now. I agree with it, especially since I believe that if I’d read what Koch has to say on rewriting earlier I’d have saved about a year and at least a draft on Girl’s Gang.

This is fairly longish, which is why I’m posting it here and not there. Behind the cut.

More on Storyteller

Cory Doctorow joins the chorus of praise for Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller (must read!); I suggest you check out his take. He excerpts some practical advice from the book which I now unashamedly steal for here:

When beginning a story, do not:
* Let your viewpoint wander
* Confuse immediate setting with background and let your camera eye wander in, out, and about randomly
* Start with a lecture in anything — history, physics, biology — anything. Expository lumps anywhere are to be avoided if possible, but they are deadly in the opening.
* Start in the middle of a scene. This is why flashback openings are a mistake almost every time. You interrupt an ongoing scene to tell us something that happened earlier that results in ongoing scene. Once started, the scenes should be concluded before you move on. An ongoing conversation is hard to catch up with. Who are these speakers, what is their relationship, what kind of voice should I be hearing in my head? Introduce them before they open their mouths.
* Mislead the reader with false information or try to create suspense or arouse curiosity by withholding necessary information. What you arouse is mistrust and annoyance.
* Sprinkle around neologisms or made-up words that cannot be found in a dictionary.
* Use words that only you and a few other people in your speciaility can understand.
* Use contractions if you can avoid them, and only sparingly no matter what.
* Have your character look into a mirror or other reflective surface in order to work in a description of her.
* Let your character talk to an animal or inanimate object in order to give information to your reader about what is going on.
* Play games with the sex of your character.

Related Link: Small Beer also has a page of "Memories and Lessons Learned at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop" from Doctorow, Jeff Ford, Gordon Van Gelder, Jim Sallis, Kit Reed, Greg Frost and Nancy Kress. Check it out.

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