The Subconscious Interview: where literary subjects talk to themselves while a clever blogger goes for a soda.
Today, Canadian fantasy/horror author Douglas Smith (Chimerascope, The Wolf at the End of the World) questions his storytelling abilities, his challenges, and his love of a certain television show starring an ass-kicking heroine.
What is your name? What is your favourite colour? What is the air speed of a swallow? [ED: African or European?]
Just kidding. Here you go.
What’s the most critical part of telling a story for you? Or to ask it another way, what’s the glue that you feel holds your stories together?
I’m a character-based writer. I always start with character (or characters). My story ideas, as [Roger] Zelazny once said, usually arrive as an idea, an image, or a character. If it’s one of the first two that prompts a story, then I don’t (can’t?) start writing the tale until the characters that will tell it are clear in my head. I tend to think in character arcs. Where is this character (in their life) when the story starts, how do they fit into this story idea, and how will they have changed by the story end? The old “what’s their problem and are they going to resolve it?” If so, how? If not, how and why will they fail?
Once I know my characters and their arcs, the next decision is who of the case will be the POV character(s). I personally consider this to be the most important decision in deciding how to tell a story. Any story will change considerably depending on whose POV you choose. For me, it ties into why I’m telling the story. I plan to write a novel from the POV of the Dead Man character in my novelette Memories of the Dead Man, but I first wanted to explore Bishop as a character as other people saw him. I wanted to keep him a cipher to a large part, and not get into his head yet. So although the Dead Man is arguably the main character in the novelette, I chose another character, Mary, as the POV character. I have a longer version of that story with bookends about another POV character interviewing Mary in prison (as he is about to break her out) about her memories of the Dead Man. That character’s motivation in the story is simply to understand the Dead Man better.
What is your biggest challenge when writing?
Without a doubt, it’s the first draft. I am trying to get better at just getting that first version of a story done, and then editing. But my writing method (or temperament) has always been to write a bit, go back and reread it and edit it a bit. I’m slower in getting a first draft done, but it tends to be a pretty clean first draft. That’s fine for a short story, but for a novel, I’ve learned that editing as I go can be a waste of time since I may end up throwing out that chapter or scene. I’m getting better at just writing the next scene, at just pushing on through, but it’s still a challenge not to tweak as I go.
Why do you love the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much?
Ever so many reasons, including a great ensemble cast and the unique blend of action/horror/romance/comedy, but it starts with the writing. And, to my point of being a character-driven writer myself, I love that it’s a character-driven series. The season and series arcs are all character arcs for Buffy overall and for most of other characters. It’s a seven-year journey where we see all of these characters change and grow, actually grow up as they face all of the typical life challenges in a very atypical world. And, of course, the dialog is wonderful. If you’re a writer and want to learn to write dialog, go buy the DVD’s for the series, watch them, and take notes. And if you want to understand how to write character-driven fiction, watch the episodes where Joss Whedon provides the commentary. Each of these is an education on writing.