'drew (thirdreel) wrote,

Ass-Kicking Ninjas and Waking Up Screaming

Teaching creative writing once again raises an odd question for me. I approached the course design with a goal of fairness; I didn't want to punish students for not writing exactly the kind of things I prefer. I wanted to give them leeway to let creativity grow. So the objective grading criteria are actually pretty easy; a student who turns everything in on time, completed and typed, will get most of the credit there.

Still, as I looked over the last set of writing exercises, I could see some of the stories blossoming and some withering. The exercise went like this: everyone had to find the strangest object in their backpack, purse or pockets, and bring this object to the front table. Then everyone had to select an object and write a story in which a character picks up the object and looks at it. Then they had to pick a different object and repeat the process.

I discovered that the most engaging stories of the bunch were the ones where the character is at odds with the item. A teenager finds a USB jump drive and, not knowing its proper use, guesses that it's a key to a high-tech luxury car. (Lexar, Lexus... something like that.) A young man looks at a jar of skin-care product belonging to his girlfriend, and he criticizes her for buying so much girly stuff.

This class, I might add, has no male students, which might have caused a sameness to the type of objects submitted, and may have contributed to some of the weaker stories. It was less interesting to read about an object, the person who was intended to use that object, and the exact expected results inherent in the object, especially if they didn't go any further than that.

drood and I had a little discussion over IM about this yesterday. drood has an amazing eye for a good story, true or fictional. Some people completely don't. They wouldn't know a good story if it hit them. The ideas they think are promising are weak, pointless and uninteresting. I've read a number of competently written stories that just don't have the spark of interest; I've read others that made me think, "I just can't buy that this is a good premise for a story. And I really can't trust the judgment of any writer who thought this might be a good premise for a story."

So are some of us just storytellers, those of us who can recognize a promising story? (And--I'll be egotistical--I consider myself one of them.) If someone just doesn't get it, are they destined to forever not get it? When you're hot, you're hot, when you're not, you're not?

In some ways, it's about writing a lot. The more you write, the more you get the sensation of writing. Good story ideas, as drood pointed out, are enjoyable to write. If you can't put up with a premise for the amount of time it takes to write it, then it's probably not a good premise.

But it's not just that. There's a kind of amateur story I call the Ass-Kicking Ninja Story. The AKNS is a story about ninjas. And ninjas, as we all know, kick ass. In this story, a group of ass-kicking ninjas totally kick ass and it totally kicks ass because the ninjas are so kick-ass.

Now, you may guess that my class full of women don't really write about ninjas. But the AKNS really isn't about the trappings of one genre or another. If a bunch of really hot sexy people have a bunch of really hot sex and it's really hot and sexy, that's a version of the AKNS. If a bunch of superheroes do a bunch of things that are super and heroic, it's a version of the AKNS. If an adorable child and her adorable friends go on a bunch of exciting adorable adventures, that's an AKNS, plain and simple. AKNSs can be fun to write, because the writer is so enamored of the trappings of the story that they get to kick more and more ass. That's the only thing that drives the story.

What good fiction writers have is a single impulse: the need to make their nightmares come true.

This doesn't mean that fiction needs to be horrific, that every writer should aspire to Clive Barker or Poppy Z. Brite. Some nightmares are about creeps in the night trying to kill you, but there are other nightmares. The man you've always loved tells you he's getting married to someone else. You're a superhero who is no longer allowed to use your powers. You're taken from your home planet to fight a war in another galaxy. A psychic accuses you of committing a crime in the future.

Even comedic fiction starts from a nightmare. The character becomes so humiliated by his faults that he undertakes a quest for self-improvement. Unless it comes from deep, deep humiliation, it's not really comedy, just silliness.

If you're a writer, you don't hang out in bright rooms where everything is clearly seen. You go into dark places, holding a candle, calling, "Hello? Is there anyone in here?" Sometimes you wake up screaming. When you do, you'll force yourself to go back to sleep, because you have to see what happens next.
Tags: english
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