In a 2009 interview, Ira Glass talked about what has come to be known as the taste gap: the difficult period early in anyone’s creative life when they know good fiction (or art, or whatever) when they see it, but they don’t yet know how to produce it, so everything they create disappoints them. “A lot of people never get past that phase,” Glass said. “They quit.”
Occasionally, I will read someone else’s short story and it will be so much the kind of thing I want to write but am not yet capable of that I have to spend a day or so talking myself out of quitting (hello there, anxiety). The latest of these is Seanan McGuire’s Little Mermaid-inspired story, Each to Each (recommended to me by a friend because I’ve been thinking about writing my own take on that particular problematic fairytale).
An alternative to quitting
However, at this year’s Emerging Writers Festival, I encountered some advice by keynote speaker C.S. Pacat that gave me a healthier alternative option for thinking about the kind of writing that I want to be able to create but can’t (yet) – a way to try to learn from it, instead of just seeing it as superior. Her advice was: any time you encounter a scene, a moment, or even just a line that really grabs you, stop and interrogate it –
- How did it make you feel?
- What were the key elements of the scene/moment/line?
- Can you think of any other examples of the same elements?
So, armed with this advice and the continuing positive effects of my current anti-anxiety meds, I’m going to take Seanan’s story and give this approach a try.
Two words of warning: first, I won’t be holding back on describing Seanan’s story, so if you’re worried about spoilers I suggest you read the story first – it’s free, and I highly recommend it.
Second, what follows is me taking something magical and deliberately dissecting it, so I can learn from its secrets how to better imitate it (and maybe other writers reading this can too). If you prefer your wizards left behind the curtain, this post is not for you.
The very first line of this story reaches out and grabs me:
Condensation covers the walls, dimpling into tiny individual drops that follow an almost fractal pattern, like someone has been writing out the secrets of the universe in the most transitory medium they can find.
It doesn’t pull the reader straight into the action, though that’s something that many great first lines do. Instead, it paints an unfamiliar picture out of familiar elements.
How does it make me feel?
Surprised, awed, like I’ve touched something magical.
(And, of course, envious. This is something I always love in others’ writing, but don’t yet feel like I can achieve myself: to paint word-pictures that illustrate the unexpected, not the obvious, without feeling pretentious or overdone.)
What are the key elements?
Breaking the line down, it starts with a very prosaic description: Condensation covers the walls. Maybe that’s necessary, so that the reader knows what they’re looking at before they can appreciate it in a more abstracted form.
The second key is a clear but unexpected visual: tiny individual drops that follow an almost fractal pattern. The fractal is a surprise, not obviously connected to the image I have in my head of what condensation looks like, yet similar enough in form that I don’t question the comparison.
The third is an extrapolation on the second, taking that unexpected visual and riffing on it in a manner almost stream-of-consciousness. Fractals are a glimpse at the way the universe works, the explanation of which (for me, at least) always leaves me teetering on the edge of understanding but never quite plunging in. Thus, the secrets of the universe (emphasis on secret – a thing we know is unknown, not a thing we know). Condensation is short-lived, thus transitory.
The idea of someone creating deliberate patterns feels like a mystery, an image drawn out of nowhere, but in fact it ties into the themes of the story to come – purposeful creators and deliberate creations. If it was me writing this, that part would probably have been added late in the process, after I’d refined the story enough to have a strong sense of its themes.
Can I think of other examples?
Well, the longer imagery that ends the same paragraph is one:
The space is tight, confined, unyielding; it is like living inside a coral reef, trapped by the limits of our own necessary shells. We are constantly envious of those who escape its limitations, and we fear for them at the same time, wishing them safe return to the reef, where they can be kept away from all the darkness and predations of the open sea.
Again, the same pattern: start with a short, prosaic description that grounds the reader in understanding; then an unexpected but clearly related visual (the insides of coral and of shells are tight, confined spaces); then stream-of-consciousness expansion on that visual in a manner that will turn out to relate to the themes of the whole story (the choice between confinement/safety and freedom/danger).
Can I think of examples outside of Seanan’s story? Not easily. I know I have read other writing whose imagery makes me feel like this, but I can’t can pull the lines or the stories that contained them out of my head now. But I suspect (I hope) that now that I’ve analysed these examples, I’ll be more likely to notice and pay attention when I come across another.
A window on wisdom
The next moment that grabs me is this line:
Things that are choices today won’t be choices tomorrow; that’s the way it’s always been, when you sign away your voice for a new means of dancing.
How does it make me feel?
Like a window has been opened to me on some deep wisdom. Like I am being presented with a truth, not in a manner that proselytises, but simply a statement of fact about how the world works.
What are the key elements?
The first is an aphorism: a concise observation of a broadly-applicable phenomenon; in this case, that when an element of society becomes normalised enough, we accept “the way things are” and no longer think about other possibilities.Things that are choices today won’t be choices tomorrow.
It feels deep and meaningful because it seems to summarise something about how the world works, but that’s a trick, I realise now, that relies on my beliefs already aligning with those of the character/author making the statement. If I was reading someone with a very different worldview, I suspect my reaction to such a bald statement would be scepticism, distaste, and distancing from the character/narrative (such as I experience when, say, reading anything written by Andrew Bolt), rather than this sense of being presented with distilled wisdom.
The second key element is a poetical expansion on the original aphorism. [T]hat’s the way it’s always been, when you sign away your voice for a new means of dancing. Unlike the directness of the first statement, this part talks around its meaning, using metaphor to allude to giving up one possible lifestyle to gain access to another.
The metaphor chosen is another deliberate tie-in to the themes of the story. In this case, it directly references the original Little Mermaid, but I suspect it would work as well if it used another aquatic metaphor, as with the coral reefs in the earlier reference.
Like the imagery I unpacked earlier, the impact of this line relies on a transition from prosaic to poetic: the first half speaks directly, grounding the reader in understanding, while the second half speaks symbolically and invites/relies on the reader to see how these more abstract concepts spring naturally from the previous statement. The combination of the two creates something that feels simultaneously magical and true.
Can I think of other examples?
Terry Pratchett’s writing is full of marvellous observations about the working of the world. Most of them are more humorous, less mystical, but I think this one, from Small Gods, comes close:
Fear is a strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.
The line between prosaic and poetic isn’t drawn as sharply here – instead of using different clauses to convey one and then the other, in this writing the first sentence is pure poetry, while the following ones use bits of both to convey their meaning.
Coming up for air
There’s plenty more I could unpack here, but this post grows long, and expanding my understanding this way is hard (though rewarding) mental work.
Like literary criticism at its finest, I suspect if Seanan was to read this she would be screaming “that’s not what I did/what that meant!”. That’s OK. The point of this exercise isn’t to understand the inner working of another author’s mind – it’s to reverse-engineer written phenomena so I can produce my own version of them using the workings of my mind.
And I definitely feel, at first blush, like using C.S. Pacat’s technique has helped – both helped me discover some new tricks I can try applying to my own writing, and helped demystify Each to Each so that it no longer feels like an achievement completely out of my reach as a writer. I hope, if you’ve made it this far, that it can help you too.