In the perfectly beautiful month of November (I always know how to time a holiday). I feel like there are people I should talk to about this, but I've forgotten who I know who still lives in London. Is it you?
Today I finished this story. I've been working on it for about, hmm, seven months, and today it's finished. I have mixed feelings about that. I spent a lot of evenings and weekends constructing it and writing it, and it's done now.
It's a first person present tense story about the journey of John Watson after Sherlock's "death" in The Reichenbach Fall.
The important thing about it really is that it's finished. It's 157k words long. And now it's done. And I'm not sure what to do with myself.
That's not a very good summary. Sorry. I'm no good at summaries.
What is a story? I feel like the default answer is words; writing is about words, and writing a story is about putting words together in an appealing way. That's the stock definition of writing, isn't it? But that's not what a story is. A story isn't words. A story is a story. It's characters and events, emotions, it's an experience in a world that is somewhat but not entirely like this one. It's an experience of standing next to people who are somewhat but not entirely like real people. Stories are voyages, they're places where things happen, where people struggle and suffer and triumph (or don't). Stories aren't words. Words are only the tools that transport the story from one head into another.
The words aren't that important, in the end. They're important in that they're tools and are required, but ideally, with a really good story, the words vanish and the reader is transported. The reader feels what your character feels, lives in the world you created, feels cold when it's cold there, afraid when it's frightening, and doesn't even notice that she's turning pages. She should forget about the object in her hands. She should just be in this other place. That's the goal, isn't it? It's not the words that take you there. It's the story itself.
The story, it seems to me, traditionally belongs to the writer. There's a story in the writer's head, and she tells it to the reader with words. And the reader takes it in and experiences it, like a copy. A perfect copy. Creator, consumer. Right? There's an active/passive split there, as if the story is a movie, and the writer creates everything on the screen while the reader watches.
I don't believe that anymore.
The writer is more of an architect. The writer lays out the plans, shows where all the rooms are, but doesn't actually construct the entire thing. The reader is not just a passive observer. The reader builds it. The reader picks the colours and the cushions. The reader decides where the lamp goes in the living room. The reader is a co-creator.
It's kind of obvious for a revelation, I know. We the readers have our own version of a story in our heads, with our own image of the protagonist. We have his house and his world in our heads, his wife and his boss and his dog, and the writer didn't describe all of it in such great detail that we have the same image. Each reader constructs parts of the story themselves in order to live in it. The writer only brings the overall structure, the broad strokes. The reader brings the rest.
I feel like culturally we don't give the reader enough credit in that department.
I've come to this revelation because I can't describe anyone. I just can't; I can create characters, but I can't ever see them in my head. I used to try to work around this, force myself to construct an image of each character, but it never worked. I just can't do it; I'm not a visual thinker. If I start describing a character, I'll just contradict myself a few pages later. So rather than trying to describe people, I just stopped. And weirdly, no one seemed to notice.
That's what made me realize it: readers don't necessarily want me to describe everyone. That's their job. That's what they bring to a story, because I can't. A writer needs to make room in her story for the reader. The reader is constantly building things, that's how words work; I can give you words, but they are imprecise. They're only a structure; you're filling in all the details. If you don't make room for the reader, she will build a tower in the middle of the living room and your protagonist will walk past one evening and topple it. You don't know what she's building; if you think she's not building anything, your story will be full of toppling towers.
Haven't you had that experience? I certainly have. Halfway through a book the writer contradicts me. I didn't know I though the dog was a beagle, but now you've told me he's a wolfhound. That doesn't fit anymore, that's an entirely different dog now. You know what I mean?
Words are notoriously terrible at conveying specific meaning. Words aren't numbers or images; they're symbolic and metaphorical at best, not precise. That's the downfall of literacy, and it's what turns books into art objects, in the end. Words are not precise enough; words require your reader to construct something of their very own out of the various and flimsy meanings of words. Words are thin when it comes to paining a precise picture. If you're a control freak about your story (and lots of writers are), the truth of the matter must be very disturbing. You have not (and cannot) push your precise story and setting and characters into another person's head. They're different in there.
It's not a bad thing, really. It's a wonderful thing that the reader is such a big part of the construction of a story, I think. That's an amazing level of intimacy with strangers. It makes reading so much more engaging; it must be why reading employs more of the brain than, say, watching a movie. There are fewer blank spaces in a film. The set is the set; the protagonist's face is the actor's face. There's less room for co-construction.
But a story is, in the end, a collaboration. I find this a very freeing revelation as a non-visual person. Now I realize I can just tell the story as I know it, and the reader can help me with the parts I can't see. And that makes it a shared story.
What I'd like to know is whether writing knowing that the end result is collaborative produces a more engaging story or not. It would be nice to imagine that it would.
I have to say, watching the animated gif explosion in internet culture, and in fan culture, is completely fascinating.
What's going on here? Taking the original source, modifying it using the tools we have available, and making a metacritical statement about it, all in one uploadable and shareable image. Something so complicated, really, with a significant amount of meaning, in such a small, simple file.
And it's kind of linked up with prompt culture too, the idea of little ideas dropped into the fandom pool. So this one, a visual depiction of Sherlock as a demon, his heightened emotion becoming visible on his face because of it. What's going to happen with this? We've got this, this visual, it's as if it happened. What happens next? Someone makes a vid? Someone writes a story? It could be anything. This is what it would look like, or this is what it could look like. All part of the great fandom dialogue we are constantly engaging in. It used to be just writing, art, and vids. It's so much more than that now.
It's powerful. I like it. I like how fandom adds layers of ideas and remixing and analysis onto cultural texts in any way possible, and in every way possible. It's really very interesting.
I'm considering writing a choose your own adventure-style piece of fanfiction. How on earth do you think I could publish it? I mean, you don't need to turn to page 64 for the continuation of a story, right? You just click a option as described, right? You click an option and it takes you to the next piece of the story. How on earth do you think I could publish something like that using existing fandom tools?
I realize that it's not actually very complicated technically, certainly nothing outside of my existing knowledge and experience, but I'd rather not self-host. If I self-host it will vanish, I can't be trusted to archive anything. I'd rather keep it in fandom, using fandom tools run by people committed to keeping things alive.
I mean, could I somehow hack around in AO3 to do it? I guess I could. Is that wise, though? I could use a series of LJ posts, right?
Someone who shall remain (ahem) nameless wrote this fic over the weekend. I think she was drunk at the time. (It was not me, I'm serious. Not me. I'm not this funny.) I may have prompted for it, but it's best if we just leave responsibility right out of it. Everyone is blameless. This fic fell out of the sky. In any case, here it is: HAPPY NEW YEAR.
I think we should dedicate it, collectively, as a fandom, to Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, who appear to want to read fanfiction filth. HERE YOU GO. ENJOY IT.