Friday, January 14, 2011

Touch Something

A long time ago, when youth was forever, I read a collection of essays by Jane Yolen called "Touch Magic."  The book shaped the way I think about story, and I find myself re-reading it every other year or so.  Recently I was skimming through it to try to find the source of the words in this blog's masthead: mystery, BEGUILEMENT, portents, WONDER, awe, CONNECTION, majesty, SURPRISE.  I thought if I could go back to the source, I would have a good starting point to talk about story and story critique.

Ms. Yolen does have a similar (shorter) list in her book, but it appears over the years I've changed some of the words when I adopted her list, or else my list is the offspring of "Touch Magic" and Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories." And it looks like I've gotten a little mixed up with the list from The Player: "Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mostly happy endings."

So much for sources...onto the critique process.

At the Wordos table, we do a lot of critique, and it is common for folks who are new to do "safe" critiques and focus on manuscript mechanics: syntax, formatting, and grammar. These are fine things to focus on, especially if critiquing manuscripts is a new pastime or you don't want to offend an older author.  Folks with more experience will look at and focus on plot mechanics and plot logic holes. This works well for stories that follow the seven-point plot form, less so for stories breaking out of that mold.

To get back to Jane Yolen's "Touch Magic," what I want to address is a story's heart.  A story works well when the reader discovers an Ah-ha! moment or when one of the characters (and by extension the reader) makes a discovery. A story's heart is bound up with the moral or message the story brings to a reader. Yes:  moral -- a tricky word to navigate.

One of the subjects in "Touch Magic" is how the storyteller is telling a truth about themselves disguised as a truth about the world.  And so my list:  mystery BEGUILEMENT portents WONDER awe CONNECTION majesty SURPRISE.  When a story works well for me, it reasonates with my list.  It shows how a particular character, and by extension the reader, find their place in the world through the choices they make.  Rather than publicly critique another's work, I'll make something up --

High above the world, the snowflake began around a grain of dust.  The wind buffeted it high and low, and from a hexagonal plate six triangular arms grew.  Heavier now, the snowflake fluttered ground-ward.  It fell onto the black mitten of Nell.  She brought her hand close to her once-young eyes, squinted at the crystal and saw silver crowns.  Good, but she must know more.  With her free hand, she fumbled her glasses down her nose and peered over the lenses.  White birds' wings entwined in frozen branches.  Before she could look longer, the snowflake melted from the heat of her breath and hand.  Nell knew her daughter would marry the old lord.  But she had seen no bells or flowers, no natal stars.  She hurried home.

-- This is just a start.  I can hear the critiques now, "The tone was distant," or "I wanted to know more about the characters, especially Nell."  And I'm sure that I've done something wrong with commas.  But the story can go on because the mother has knowledge about her daughter's future; and what actions she takes to help or hinder her daughter's marriage will not only reveal Nell's character, but speak to mothers' hopes, the nature of fore-knowledge, mother-in-law relations, and how the act of looking at the future "melts" it.

Yes; this story might not resonate with everyone -- and what story could?  But  a story spun poorly from this fragment will speak only to gold-diggers.  Yes, most parents want their children to marry well and produce grandchildren -- but that's not a deep truth.  (Oh, I'm going to get into trouble for using the phrase "deep truth," but let me defend myself by pointing readers to various market's guidelines and lists of worn ideas and say that it's harder to produce a resonate story starting from the ideas in these lists of don'ts.)

A well-spun story has a greater chance of resonating with a wider audience -- of speaking their truths.  Speaking an audience's truth gives them a glimpse at a world map, one that has a "you are here" arrow on it -- a map that helps them to navigate morals.

When I critique, sure; I want the main character to solve their problems -- but I also  to be awed by the majesty of the world.  I want to be filled with wonder and beguiled by mystery.  I want to be surprised by portents.  And I especially want the story to say something about how the choices we make transform the connections between ourselves and the world. 

And... okay -- I'll admit it -- a little well-crafted, artfully done sex wouldn't be so bad.  Er -- sex scene.  Scene.  Written.  Quick!  Someone, give me a fade to black!
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