Thursday, April 21, 2016

On the Beat - a lost skill in writing?

I have been thinking carefully about the pulps lately, in particularly about what made some of the early pulp SF greats so enduring.  

What was it about was perusing the excellent Center for Fiction website today when I came across this article by Victor LaValle.

In a nutshell, this is the tale of two skilled and educated writers who have suddenly come face to face with the fact that narrative had never been a big part of their training.  In LaValle's words:
There's a kind of blind spot, an essential flaw, in the workshop method that contributed to our problem. In class we'd discussed each submission seriously, were schooled about our characterizations, our use of language, our voices, our ideas. But we rarely, if ever, discussed the structures of our stories. Never examined the reasons why we'd told this story in this order.
This epiphany comes to them when LaValle's friend calls in a daze, realizing that the comic book panels he has been scripting in his new job are just sudden cut scenes from conversation to conversation. What could it all mean? Did their prose stories boil down to much the same?

What they realized, suddenly, was that the demands of writing for comic books were exposing a gap in their training: it wasn't necessarily that they couldn't write a coherent narrative, but that the focus of everything they'd done so far had been elsewhere, and they were suddenly realizing: they didn't know how to think about the narrative.

A tightly written story is a beautiful thing.  Even when the characters are cut-outs, the dialogue wooden, and the cliches are thick on the ground - if the beats come just right then odds are good that's a story you will have trouble putting down.

Reading this little blurb about the way in which comic book writing had thrown their lack of narrative training into relief reminded me of my question: what was it about the best of the early pulp writers that made them work so well?

These modern writers were learning how to analyze their narratives, how to think about the attack and decay of beats, the sequence, how to build a climax and how to pull together disparate threads to make a point, all this by looking at their writing through the lens of comics.

The pulp greats?

Detective stories.

Looking back, it seems obvious. If you take a look at some of the best known names from the 30s and 40s, which is arguably the peak of pulp SF, the best were known as much for their mysteries and their detective fiction as for SF.

Look at C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner - between the two of them they turned out any number of mysteries and hard boiled detective stories.

Look at Leigh Brackett - as well known in some circles for her hard-boiled novel No Good From a Corpse and her screenplay for The Big Sleep as for any of her space opera in SFandom.

Look at Dorothy Sayer, look at Dennis Wheatley.

All of these writers worked with mystery and detective stories just as much as Arthur Conan Doyle did with his Sherlock Holmes tales and later Agatha Christie with her murder mysteries. And the one thing that ties this all together is that for a mystery of any kind to work effectively for the reader the author must master two things:

1. The timing of the story beats
2. The weaving together of divergent narratives into a whole

The proof?

Further forward, let's look at Ray Bradbury, Moore and Kuttner's young padawan - his stories may never have drifted into detective territory, per se, but they have that same fine grasp of timing and control.  He takes that mastery of tight storytelling he learned in his mentors' livingroom and applies it masterfully to build a sense of otherwordly disconnect in his Martian Chronicles stories, to misdirect and surprise in tales such as The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, to build tension in stories like Chrysalis.

Look at H. Beam Piper, whose detective slate novel Murder in the Gun Room is perhaps his best work, but whose skillful handling of timing and complex threads shows itself in his story He Walked Around the Horses and others of his paratime police series.

Look at Andre Norton, who again draws on the legacy of the pulp era greats and like them in her early work she wrote crime fiction as well as SF - and you can see that way of thinking in the structure of her Time Traders stories.

These writers were writing across genres at a time before the development of our modern silos, and the majority of the early masters wrote at a time before genre publishing was any way to make a living. Those who truly wanted to earn their bread with their type-writers couldn't possibly rely on science fiction alone - even if their output was sufficient to buy food at a penny a word (or less!) there simply weren't that many dedicated venues.  No, to pay the bills they needed to think in terms of the full range of possibilities, and they wrote not only science fiction but also crime, detective/mystery, western, fantasy, adventure, and weird fiction.

The majority of pulp era authors faded quickly of course - they burned out, perhaps, or were simply never really good enough to last.

But the best?

The best pushed on and were well known well into the 60s and 70s, before The Great Delisting - and we're starting to rediscover them again now (though of course they were never completely forgotten, just so difficult to find that only grey-haired or truly dedicated young fans would be likely to come across them).

The best of their protégés obviously learned these same rules, and added to it the next generation's ideas to enhance characterization and colour.

I think it's no mystery why so many of the best writers of the pulp era and the generation after wrote for radio, film, and TV as well as for print - many of the "beat" rules they learned transfer very well to the demands of visual storytelling.  And this, of course, is why attempting to write for comics threw the lack of focus on these rules in modern writer training into such sharp relief.

In modern writer training, the kind of close one-on-one mentoring that previous generations enjoyed is less common.  On top of that, many of the tools that those pulp masters forged and passed on to the next generation have come to be seen as "obvious" - so workshops and similar training venues tend to focus on other things: the artistry of character and colour, the feats of worldbuilding that we've come to expect.

Basically, what's happened is that literary fiction has gained the luxury of being somewhat lazy: it's become possible to obsess about painting scenes and generating atmosphere without much consideration for the other dimensions of a good story.  Make no mistake, there are great authors today - maybe better authors in some respects than in decades past (though I submit that the best of the pulp era would fare as well today as they did then). But there's hardly anyone teaching this generation of writers how to keep a beat.

Partly, I blame the siloing of genres - it's possible now to make a living writing nothing but science fiction, perhaps nothing but a specific sub-type of science fiction. And the sheer volume of writing being published is astounding - even if they wanted to, many writers can barely keep up with what their peers are writing, let alone delve into other realms of publishing to see what the others are doing.  And of course the pay is much better - oh, it's still not a lot, and the majority of writers will still need to heed that advice: "don't quit your day job" but it's no longer necessary to add crime fiction and westerns, and radio plays and TV dramas and film scripts to your bibliography just to ensure enough income to justify the time spent writing.

So if you're a writer, here's your challenge:

If you haven't done it before try this - read something in a dramatically different genre (write SF? read a western. write steam punk? try a spy thriller), pay attention to how the story works, how the narrative is built. Then and only then turn around a try something completely different. Write something new - try a new genre, try a new format!

Do you write prose? Try poetry. Try a screen play. Try a radio drama. Try thinking about how your story would work in a comic - and if you have the skills, sketch it out, see how it works.

Writers need to grow. And yes, writers can grow by simply hunkering down and hammering out what they know, refining their skills and honing down to an ever finer focus. But:

What's growth without adventure?

Try it!

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