August 27th, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing science fiction; deciding what to do with plots...

Referring to the final version of "Too Human By Half," jehannamama commented:
"And you've put what some authors would make a whole novel out of, into just a few choice and perfect words."

I am grateful for the "choice and perfect," needless to say -- especially after having almost wrecked that poem with more than a few superfluous and badly-chosen words. [And I'm grateful for having been saved from doing that by the immediate and effective intervention of you LJers.]

But the rest of the comment -- "what some authors would make a whole novel out of" -- got me thinking about the larger question of how it is, precisely, that a science fiction writer who has a plot on hand decides what to do with it. Every plot, in my opinion, is an infinity; no matter what size the writer makes its finished form, there would always be the possibility of putting in more (or fewer) details, adding more (or less) information, leaving less (or more) information for the reader to supply. I don't believe in the hypothesis that there are certain plots that can only be done as a poem or a short story because they're too "flimsy" to be a novel, or in any of the variations on that hypothesis.

There are of course times when the writer has no choice. When you have bills to pay and the offer that comes your way is for a screenplay or a novelization or a short story, you write the screenplay or the novelization or the short story. Sometimes there's no choice because basic financial issues -- which format is likely to earn you the most money -- have to come first; you have to worry about things like not "wasting" a plot on a poem if it could be turned into a short story or a novel or a screenplay. Our publishing industry has this bizarre rule that the longer the piece of writing is, the more money you will be paid for it; you may be in a financial situation that forces you to put that rule first. But suppose you do have a choice. How does that choice get made?

Most of the writers I know are like me; our problem is not that we're trying desperately to think of a plot but that we have long lists of plots on hand, and more plots are arriving in our heads all the time. Our problem is choosing which one(s) to write in which order, deciding whether to use them (or any one of them) for a short story or a poem or a novel or something else, and getting them written. If you're a writer who happens to agree with me that a good poem is just as important a literary item as a good novel or a good short story or a good screenplay -- not a position that is endorsed by the Science Fiction Writers of America -- that gets you a certain distance toward your choice; if you're not, that must surely make it harder.

Age is a factor in the decision. Certainly we all know that a human being can die suddenly at any age; that's a given. There are parts of this world where the chances are quite good that you'll die before the age of five. But in the U.S., the older you are, the more likely your death becomes, and you start having to do some triage. If you're seventy and you're absolutely determined to continue motorcycle-racing (or worse yet, to realize a lifelong dream and start motorcycle-racing!), you're going to have to sit down and figure out what other things you'll have to give up to make that possible. I'm seventy; if I were absolutely determined to turn all my plots-on-hand into novels, I'd have to give up blogging. No question about it. I'd probably have to give up doing science fiction art. And in the same way that I now have to accept the fact that there are hundreds of crochet patterns in my collection that I'll never have time to make, I now have to accept the fact that I'm very unlikely to get all the plots in my collection written.

Putting some of those plots into poems -- when I'm able to make that work -- is a way of not letting them go to waste. I'm a frugal person; that pleases me.