A couple of years back, when I was ridin' high on a talk-radio wave, I pitched a concept for a new show: each week, take a roundtable of writers, put 'em in front of live microphones, and let rip with a freewheeling discussion of their works in the larger overall context of the writing craft & trade.
Did I mention that the core of the pitch was that the show would be broadcast from a fine drinking establishment, using the fellow imbiber-customers as a "live" audience, free to contribute their own observations from time to time... and all the while, serving a steady flow of intoxicating beverages to the actual roundtable writer-participants?
Uh-huh. As I sat before several gape-mouth'd (and increasingly incredulous) broadcast executives, earnestly pitching this as a serious commercial venture, I tossed out possible show titles: In Vino, Veritas was one of them; Intoxicating Prose was another. There were more, but you get the general idea.
Not surprisingly, my initial audience of broadcast gatekeepers here... uh... "passed" on the proposal. I was outraged at the time, contemptous at the striking "lack of vision" they displayed via the nuclear-tipped anti-ship missile launched at the idea being floated.
Recently, I've revised my opinion somewhat (tho I still think it would be a helluva cool radio show; heck, I'd listen in). Today, I reference my newfound caution --that is, about mixing writers, intoxicating substances, and a public forum-- in light of an exchange regarding my Nov. 5 2011 column, posted here on my Redroom blog site as well as in other venues, itself regarding the "keep it simple" storytelling maxim espoused by mega-author Stephen King.
As you'll see, the definition of "intoxicating substances" has been expanded to include certain cold remedies...
The online exchange, in toto reprinted below, should be read as a transcript of a broadcast --had my roundtable program ever been produced-- as placed in evidence during a disciplinary hearing of the FCC.
--Earl "Mad Mic" Merkel
Post 1; Merkel:
If one is looking for advice on writing, it's hard to go wrong by going along with Stephen King-- not just in the how-to book he wrote on writing (entitled, aptly enough, On Writing), but even in the dialogue he puts in the mouths of his fictional characters.
Take, for instance, the gem that pops up in King's to-be-released-this-week novel, 11/22/63, a time-travel epic that focuses on the historic event of that date. Here, King speaks through his protagonist... on the essence of story-telling.
"In my life as a teacher," Jake muses, "I used to hammer away at the idea of simplicity. In both fiction and nonfiction, there's only one question and one answer: What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds … Keep it simple. It's the only sure way home."
The "Jake" is Jake Epping, a time-traveling history teacher who finds that "the past 'senses change-agents, and it has teeth.'" The sprawling 800-plus pages of 11/22/63 repeatedly illustrates the dangers inherent in that statement (and that maxim).
Admittedly, King may not always take his own simplicity-centric advice in his own work-- like all mega-successful writers, editors long ago ceased to be even a minor annoyance-- but that doesn't mean the lodestar he promotes here isn't the best advice any writer might follow... because it demonstrably is.
For an example with which I'd wager even S. King might agree, one merely needs to read E. Hemingway's classic, IMHO the best short-short story ever penned, repeated here in toto: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."
--Earl "Who You Callin' 'Simple,' Bub??" Merkel
Post 2; Reader Rich:
If storytelling is nothing more than answering "what happened?", then Mr. King is asserting that fiction writers are really just journalists with a slippery hold on the facts. Maybe not even journalists, since (I am informed) they are also expected to relate who, when, where, why, and how.
I'm surprised that you, Dr. Merkel, with one foot firmly planted in both camps, would pass along Mr. King's once-removed pontificating without more critique. News is good or bad based on the facts, but a good (or bad) tale is in the telling.
Mr. King must know this, or he wouldn't need 800+ pages to tell us about 11/22/63. That's as long as the Warren Report, fer cryin' out loud.
--Reader "Bork the facts--tell me a story" Rich
Post 3; Merkel
Thank heavens! There ARE still followers of this column out there who continue to visit the website and propose online discourse! (grin) I was starting to worry that City Councils throughout America had outlawed the Internet (and, in a nod to the needless re-make of Footloose, perhaps banned dancing there, too).
Rich, you certainly make a valid point re: the "just tell what happened" -school of thought that S. King put in the mouth of his character. I --indeed, perilously straddling the barbed wire-topped fence you mention-- should have parsed the bejezzus outta it. (chuckle) But that's what seems to get me into hot water, more often than not.
Still, in my joy at having a response to my plaintive message-in-a-bottle posting, what the hell; let's do it!
I agree with Steve-o (and you), and I disagree with him (and maybe you). (I definitely should be running for office, making comments like that.) My agreement with SK is that "what happened" is the essence of story-telling; my agreement with you is that a competently stylistic rendering of "wha' happened??" is what makes it a good story.
My disagreement with Mr. King (and likely, you-- but I'm less certain of your argument here) would center --perhaps surprisingly, given how long I've been committing this freakin' thing called "journalism"-- largely on King's inclusion of non-fiction in his maxim.
In non-fiction (and let's not start that argument about "creative" non-fiction here; I'm talking about something that doesn't include intentionally "made up" content) telling "what (really) happened" is just too hard to do, either well or even adequately.
A novelist has the enormous advantage, IMHO, over those "fact"-oriented reportorial non-fiction types; since the universe we fiction-istas write is one of our own creation, we get to decide both the "what" and the "happened."
In the real world, things get a little less writer-centric (or, again IMHO, should); as a certain Doc Aquinas once noted, our human inability to know everything about any given "thing" is among those attributes that make us flawed. At our best, we're only Heinlein's Fair Witnesses-- "On this side, the house is white" --sadly, grokin' only a fraction of whatever is, was, or will be "happening."
That's what can make something that is "good" news to, say, me, really bad news for, say, you. Knowing that I found the $100 bill you lost (you? A writer with a $100 bill?!? Okay, we'll go with it anyway) is good news for me, less so for you, no?
But my not knowing how you earned that C-note --arguably, a significant part of "what happened"-- makes for a different, also arguably incomplete, non-fiction story. Worse, not knowing that tomorrow I'll be the victim of a murder-robbery 'cause I'll be compelled to flash the bill in a seedy bar later tonight ... that makes my initial "good" fortune somewhat suspect. If we're talking about all this "happening" in non-fiction, I'm decidedly screwed.
However, if both of us are characters in my (or your) fiction... clearly, it probably comes out better for me (and more importantly, the reader) than if both of us are reading "factual" reportage by some journalist about my "gain/loss." I can parlay that omniscient-narrator ability any way I wish. I can even invent time travel, and go back and save myself. Or not, and really mess with the continuum.
(Unfortunately, in either case, you are still out the $100 --"unfortunately," that is, unless either in the novel or in real life you were about to buy tainted heroin with it, in which case... well, no need to thank me. Remember, I'm the dead one here.).
Ye gods! I'm twisting even myself in logic-knots with all this... which, willy-nilly, may indeed be the very reason Mr. King chain-sawed that forest for the paper needed by an 800-page-plus, time-travel novel: he needed the space just to work out "what happened."
In charity, I'll admit that may be the case...
...but in the real world, I reassert my belief that it's just because no editor dares tell Da King to "trim it back a bit, Steve."
--Earl "See, This Tree Fell Down In This Deserted Forest-- So Did It Make A... Oh, Hell Wi' It; Gimme Another Scotch" Merkel
Post 4; Merkel:
Having, after several hours, re-read the gibberish I posted above, allow me to add a new maxim for all writers: never compose website postings while under the influence of a powerful, non-FDA Approved, made-in-Canada cold remedy.
Let alone wash it down with a good single-malt.
You think operating heavy machinery can wreak damage? Given the evidence above, "tapping madly on laptop computers with Internet access" should henceforth top the Surgeon General's cautionary list.
Apologies to all who tried to puzzle their way to some kind of meaningful point in all that lunacy. Sorry.
--Earl "Good Lord! Are The Walls Actually Bleeding?" Merkel
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