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Peter Beagle Critique at BayCon 2010, Side A

Posted by on June 5, 2010

“…a couple of good teachers in college who were able to affect my work, were able to make suggestions, were able to tell me ‘you really ought to abandon this one… it’s not salvageable,’ were somehow able to do it without ripping my guts out. They were brilliant at it. I still have every paper I wrote. This is the mid 1950s we’re talking about. I still have every paper I wrote for one particular teacher, not for what I wrote, but for his comments, and when he retired from the University of Pittsburg, some years ago, and I was asked to speak at his retirement ceremony, I figured, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll bring some of those papers I wrote for Monty, and I’ll read the notes he wrote on them just in different places to give some example of what sort of teacher he was. And I’ll be the only one doing this. Well, there were three speakers ahead of me, all of them now professors themselves, and every one of them did the same thing. Every one of them had saved Monty’s notes, not for the things they’d written at 17 and 18, but for the way he criticized them. I don’t even pretend to be in that league. I’ll do the best I can.

But there is one thing that I want to state, and that’s… How many of you know an essay of Ursula LeGuin’s called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”? It’s a paradoxically brilliant and undoubtedly cruel piece of writing because she was talking about the necessity of making your story feel as though it really is happening in another world of some sort, whether it’s a matter of time, space, or anything in between. She didn’t mean that everything has to sound like [inaudible] by Thomas Mallory. You don’t have to be “forsoothing” it all the time. But it should sound as though it’s happening somewhere else, somewhere the reader can follow. And she took dialogue – I won’t mention the writer – she took dialogue from one particular well-known writer that was supposed to be spoken by Tolkienesque elf-lords and put the dialogue into the mouths of a bunch of Congressmen coming down the Capital steps, and you couldn’t tell the difference. You couldn’t tell what it had been written for.

My particular pet peeve – that’s why I want to state it in advance – is dialogue that really does sound as though you can hear it on any street corner. Which is fine if you’re writing about the street corner, but not if you’re writing about someplace, as they used to say, someplace where people write with a feather. There was a movie theater years ago, I think in Nevada, where they always had Westerns – they liked Westerns, they expected the new Westerns double bill every Friday night. United Artists, a new distributor, for some reason began sending them great costume dramas. Great, sweeping MGM-style big-budget Virginia Mayo costume dramas until finally the manager of that one local theater wrote, “Dear Sir, Please do not send us no more movies where they write with a feather!”

If you want to evoke that kind of world, then it’s really sabotaging yourself not to pay attention to dialogue that should sound, that should echo, that should evoke, somehow, another place. Another world. I spend more time on that, probably, than anything else. I don’t want my characters saying “Zounds!” all the time, or “Forsooth,” or “God’s death!” or what the hell, but all the same I really spend time keeping them from sounding like those damn Congressmen coming down the steps on a bright, sunny Washington D.C. day. And in the entries here, the effect varies. Most of them – it’s interesting – even stories I don’t particularly like in this group, that I don’t think work, have a good central idea. All of them do, to one degree or another, whether it’s executed properly or not. There’s a story – I’m not sure how to do this; I’ll mention the story titles without going into the authors’ names.

There’s a story, “Lily by the Bay,” which has a great deal to do with – it takes place in California, and you’re not entirely clear which California it is. But let’s assume it’s a contemporary California. Its concern, more than anything else, is ecological. It begins with a prologue of hundreds of years earlier, which involves the Spaniards and the Indians that they have subdued and also diminished – or at least they think they have – and much of the following chapters take place in and around Palo Alto, which I used to know very well. The description of people concerned with ecology, with reclaiming the land from what it’s been used for and protecting it from being paved over is very real and in its own terms, very believable. It has to do with reclaiming a creek bed and its surroundings by itself it’s particularly interesting – I know people do this – but… and the dialogue can certainly be contemporary because it’s a contemporary story… but after reading these early chapters, I’m not sure exactly where it’s all going. There’s magic in it, and references to magic, and mysterious forces are in play. The Spanish priest plans to locate a mission in what will later become the city of Palo Alto.

Looking at the summary, it’s clearly a fantasy; it’s also a romance, and it’s meant to be actually the third book of a trilogy. I don’t blame Tolkien for this sudden explosion of trilogies in the last forty years except to say that he never intended The Lord of the Rings to be a trilogy, never thought of it as one, it was one large book divided into three for economic reasons by his English publisher. In any case, I’m flying blind without looking at the first two books. And it’s not that I don’t like it. It’s more that I haven’t a clue where I am, beyond Palo Alto, and what exactly is going on, other than the serious ecological concerns.

When I faked my way into my first screen-writing job… and I mean that literally. Or at least I tried to… thank goodness, [I] ran into a young story editor who must have figured in two minutes I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. He would take me out and give me crash courses in screenwriting over hamburgers. One of most important things he told me is that moving pictures are supposed to move. He told me that you don’t get to deliver exposition in a movie and you can’t afford to have your characters deliver it too much. Movies are shorthand. You have to make your camera the narrator because you don’t get to do that. And you have 90 minutes. He always felt that any good movie should be able to do what it has to do in 90 minutes. You have 90 minutes to keep from losing your customers, your audience. You have to drag them along with you and set the pace, stick to it, heighten it, but mainly keep them interested in your characters. And that’s tricky. You’re trying to keep a story going the same way you’re trying to make your characters believable.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in the characters here, this particular “Lily by the Bay.” But barring the lead character, Lily, I can’t always tell other characters from each other. This is also important. My stories always start with characters. They’ve always started with voices in my head. Because I’m officially a writer, I don’t get locked up for hearing voices in my head, but I really do. The characters, as I say, here, have a tendency to blur into each other. The concern is real, but I can’t find the shape of the story. Granted, I haven’t seen the first two lines of this trilogy. I don’t know whether it should be a trilogy or not. I don’t know how big a story it is to warrant a trilogy. I think the writing is intelligent and purposeful, but I can’t make out what the purpose is. That doesn’t mean that I need to know everything the author has in mind. But your reader signs up for a ride, essentially for a magical mystery tour, when he or she opens the book. And they can always close it. I usually figure 49 out of 50 times, if the reader closes the book, it’s probably my fault. I lost them some way. The 50th time, I probably couldn’t have done anything about that anyway. But as I say, it’s not bad, but it needs shape, it needs distinction between the characters, particularly.

I never think I see particularly well. I don’t think I’m terribly observant. If you see a passage of physical description of a passage or a room or an outdoor scene in my stories, believe me, I’ve worked on it and gone over it and over it. Dialogue and characterization seems to come comparatively easily. I try to keep my people, even though they’re high school kids, from talking too much like each other. Everybody has a particular speech rhythm. It’s not so much the words. It’s the way people put sentences together. When I was in college, my first roommate my freshman year was a black senior. A history major. And his friends would come over in the evening to visit, a lot of them. This was 1955. A lot of them were Korean War veterans. And I would simply sit and listen to their different speech rhythms because, in spite of what movies tend to show you, all black people do not sound alike. Some are from Pennsylvania, some from the South, some from New England. And I would try to get down that – the way they said things, not the words, but the flow and the emphasis – almost literally like copying music. I remember badgering my roommate, “Okay, I know you’re studying, I’m sorry, I’m not gonna bother you after this, but could you look at this, does this sound anything like the way Charlie talks?” And Ben would very patiently look at it and I remember him saying, “Uh… you’re getting’ there… it’s Negroid.”

I do that constantly, sometimes without even knowing I’m doing it. My advice to the author here is to remember especially if your readers have come along with you through two volumes, by now the story should know where it’s going. I can’t tell that yet. And the characters should be more marked. More marked out in terms of who they are and how they say what they say. The writing itself is not bad. But the writing isn’t all of it; sometimes the writing is practically the least of it. I can think of writers who were really terrible at handling the English language, and yet for some reason, whether it was the pacing or the characterization, they dragged you along. One of them I can think of, Theodore Dreiser, [whom] my father mysteriously liked, won the Nobel Prize. He would pound you over the head with detail, characterization, pace, over and over and over until you finally just gave in. He finally beat you into submission. I would never recommend him as a way to learn style. But observation and pace, yeah. Even now I read Dreiser, mumbling to myself.

The next is a story called “The Timewalkers.” And I don’t know where this is going, but I really do want to know. This has to do with a contemporary San Franciscan who gets involved with a time traveler, a woman. The time traveler comes from – she herself denies it, but – whether it’s a race or a group of wild talents, from people who can go in and out of time. Who can physically disappear because they’ve moved on to another dimension of time, another time period. The reason I know this is the opening paragraph of the synopsis [which] does catch one’s attention:

“Mild-mannered underachiever Peter Chang lives in San Francisco. His dull brokerage job is enlivened only by the mystery of the door hidden behind a panel in his boss’s office. Then one night, time-traveler Nikki Varian pops out through the door and changes his life forever. Hopelessly infatuated, Peter finds himself fleeing with her, through various timelines, from a psychotic telepath, a beautiful assassin, and a horde of brain-sucking immortals who are hunting Nikki to extract the secret of time-travel from her skull. If he is to help her protect herself and her surviving family, Peter must travel back to Chinatown before the 1906 earthquake to discover his own mysterious connection to the Timewalkers.”

…Okay. That’s — all by itself, I can’t help it, that is fascinating. I don’t know where the hell this is going, but yes, that’s an idea. That’s what they would call in movies, “high concept.” As opposed to “low concept”, which may amount to great literature, which may describe great literature, but which cannot be described in twenty-five words or less. Or, in this case, one paragraph. I like the writing, I like the notion that Nikki at this moment in her life has been involved with the 19th, early 20th century painter Edvard Munch, best known to us as the painter of “The Scream.” Actually distressed at their break-up. Given who she is, she’s incapable of forming what you might call really lasting relationships. I don’t know what this is, this is going somewhere. It may ramble, from what I’ve seen.

One thing I envy, very simply, is that the author does have a sense of place. The opening sequences with Nikki take place in Munch’s Paris. I’ve lived in Paris and attempted to set a novel in Paris, long ago, and whoever this is does it better than I did because there is a sense of Paris as a real place, which I never really got. I was much younger then. I could do better now.

But again, at the very beginning of the story when a character warns a Chinese family, takes a Chinese child under his wing – he’s a Timewalker himself and recognized as such by an old Chinese woman – warns them to be inside a particular building on the morning of the 1906 earthquake, and affects their lives because that’s one the few buildings that wasn’t knocked down. That’s one of the few major buildings, the old Palazzo, where if you took shelter, you’d be safe, and it’s important to keep this particular child safe. So I’m really curious about this one. I do want to know where it’s going.

At the same time, and this is something I’ll tell everybody, don’t write the third draft while you’re writing the first. That’s something I used to fall into a lot and I’m still likely to. Whatever I say, or anyone else tells you, get the thing finished. I have a friend, my oldest writer friend in California, whom I envy because he will charge straight through a first draft without looking back. He won’t try to rewrite, he won’t try to pretty it up, not until he gets to the end. Then he’ll go back. But his theory is that writing fiction is like a coiled spring. The story is a coiled spring. If you mess with it too much or talk about it too much or try to fix it up while you’re doing it, you’re wasting the energy of that spring. I think he’s right. I don’t do – well I used to do nearly as much as I did. And I speak of The Last Unicorn here, which took as long as it did, was as maddening as was because I’d stop and go back and try to fix this and fix that. Which is especially a mistake when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and are making the story up as you’re going along. Which I was doing. I didn’t know where the hell the unicorns were, for God’s sake. I was just hoping King Haggard would tell me.

But yeah, I do like this one. Even if I don’t know where it’s going. What a writer has to do is establish trust in the reader. No, I don’t know where this is going, this is really crazy. But for some reason, I trust the writer. And it’s a great danger and a pity to betray a reader’s trust by copping out or by the classic one of saying that he woke up and it was all a dream. You’d be amazed that one still circulates. Once you have a hook in the reader, and established that trust, whether they call it the suspension of disbelief or anything else, it’s very important not to betray that trust. If you do that, you’ll never get them back. This one has me really curious.

Now this [next] one definitely takes place in – it’s “Honor Among Thieves” – takes place in a futuristic world primarily aboard what seems to be a space station and I’m irritated because there’s something potential in here but I can’t get at it. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not really sure why the heroine is on the run as she is. I’m not clear where I am in time. This is another case… okay, this is the future, it’s not the far future, not as far forward as my favorite of the Star Trek spinoffs, Deep Space Nine, not nearly that far forward. More like essentially [inaudible]. But for all that, there’s no change in language. This happens almost overnight. And there’s in this world and the language is exactly contemporary except for one odd word or another. This particularly perturbed me because it’s my thing about a sense of place. Just where the hell are we? I know this is something like a space station or a space frontier town. The heroine is being pursued by men intent on rape and probably murder, but I’m not sure where she is, and she just… keeps on. She should have put some distance between herself and her pursuers and then suddenly they’re closer than they should be.

I’m not sure that the author knows much more about this world than I do. This is another thing. You can create a fantastic world, a historical world, but again it’s a question about the reader’s trust. The best science fiction writers can take you all over the place, and if they’ve established the world clearly enough really early on, you have at least some kind of sense of where you are. Here in particular – there are other stories like this – I feel as though I’ve been thrown into the middle of an ongoing story, an ongoing history. Sometimes that works but when it doesn’t, your reader’s at sea, just floundering. I found myself floundering during most of the story.

There is a pace here, especially because there’s a really interesting notion here. That the heroine, like certain other people, has been modified. I’m not clear on how – genetically? Surgically modified? So that she can slip what feels like a floppy disk or some future equivalent, into a slot in her neck and shoulder and see what she needs to see on the screen, as it were, behind her eyes, on her own retinas. An intriguing idea, and a little creepy. But that’s all right. That by itself is all right. There are references to people who have been modified like this. There are also references to lobotomies once or twice. But nothing is explained, and unlike the previous one where I don’t know where I’m going but I’m willing to trust that the author does, here I’m not sure that the author does.

As somebody who has failed at certain stories because I was making them up as I went along – I did not plan properly, outline properly – I sympathize. The Last Unicorn took longer than it should because I didn’t know what I was doing, hadn’t outlined at all, and blundered through it. That particular time, I got away with it. But the novel I tried after that, I didn’t get away with it. It took 18 years and four drafts before the book was finally published and it’s still not right. One day I’d like to go back over it and try it again. By the same token, my favorite of my own books, The Innkeeper’s Song, was ongoing. And there were so many characters in different parts of the story that I remember sitting up in bed during siesta time in India, where siesta is a very practical thing, up to two hours, with a yellow legal pad, drawing a line drawn down the center and putting events on one side, and what voice is telling them on the other. I still have that pad. If you looked, you’d recognize it – a lot of things changed because that’s what happens in the creative process – but you would recognize that particular book. I don’t always do that right. It’s still half-alien to me to outline because something in me doesn’t want to make up stories, it wants to let the story tell itself. Even after all these years of doing it, I still recommend against it.”


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