Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Opportunity Cost

There's an old Jewish myth (actually a collection of related myths) about the golem, a man-shaped creature made of clay, created by a rabbi who was wise and holy. The golem remained inanimate, merely a lump of shaped clay, until the rabbi wrote one of the names of God on its forehead or on a slip of paper placed in the golem's mouth.

I think this is a nice metaphor for any creative act, and especially appropriate to writing. We gather together our raw materials (ideas about setting, characters, a dramatic scene and maybe a theme), shape them into a story and then, by our writing, breathe life into them. The mythical golem cannot speak; we also must give our story golem a voice.

In other, less prosy and off-topic words, we build stories by hand. We assemble them. At each stage of the process, we make decisions about the structure, shape and purpose of our story. With each decision we make, with each path we follow, we eliminate other possible paths, other possible shapes of our story. There are consequences to our decisions. Orson Scott Card refers to this as the "cost" of the decisions, and I think that's a useful way to think of them.

There is no perfect, Platonic ideal method of storytelling. Every storyteller (that is, every writer) has a unique reading history and therefore an individual vision of what a story is when properly written. That's the writer's voice. Even so, no matter how much we have read, we don't automatically have a fully-formed way of telling every story that we think of. We have to find it. We have to assemble our story method the same way we assemble our story elements. Which means turning our backs on any number of ways to tell the story.

I think that a lot of my own writing time is devoted to rejecting ideas, toying with possibilities and then abandoning them because, while they might work for some other writer or some other story, they aren't right for what I'm doing. And the more decisions I make, the more I hem my story in, limit the possible actions of my characters and kill off hosts of alternate endings. I make a sort of rule system for the story and have to obey those rules, focusing on what choices I have allowed myself.

On the whole, I think this is a good thing, because it helps me know what I'm doing while I'm writing. I've tried to rule out things that will harm the story. Herman Melville, in "Moby Dick", takes every other chapter to write an essay about whaling, or the color white, or whatever. Some of this is fascinating reading. Some of it is not. All of it pulls me out of the actual story. This is the cost Melville pays for sharing all his extensive research.

In my own book, I put in some long passages (not chapters, though) about religion, theology, history and architecture. I told myself this was setting and, since it interested me (and because I'd done loads of research) it would interest a reader. Maybe it would, but it came at the cost of pushing the actual story away from the reader, and that was a price I didn't want to pay, so I cut reams of text.

When my agent and I first discussed my book, one of the ideas he threw at me was to change it from a first-person narrative to a third-person narrative. This would solve one problem (that the narrator has to be present for almost all the action no matter which characters are involved), but at the cost of losing the immediacy of the protagonist's voice. That was too high a price, so I rejected the idea right off.

This is a long, rambly post, for which I apologize. My point, if I have one, seems to be that for each story we write, there are a large number of similar stories we chose not to write. Somewhere out there in the aether is a version of my story as told by the protagonist's wife, and also a version told by the villain, and also a version in third-person that flashes back and forth between Denmark and Germany, a version filled to the ceiling with details about 16th-century Europe and the Reformation. That I won't write any of these versions sometimes depresses me, but life is short and I think, well and truly, that I've chosen to write the version I will like the most.


  1. I love both the imagery of physically building our stories, and the realization that in writing our story, we're choosing not to write many others. Both require us to be present and mindful at every stage.

    I am at this very moment panicking about my WIP because I don't know where the story is going. I've toyed with some ideas, rejected others, don't have any others that I want to pursue or even think are interesting.

    Not a plotter but I tried plotting, but still, nothing. I feel more like Golum than the creator of my book. Somebody please write a name of God and place in my mouth.

  2. I don't think your post was rambly. You've made several great points here. One of my favorites:

    I make a sort of rule system for the story and have to obey those rules, focusing on what choices I have allowed myself.

    I finally realized that Monarch has a set of rules that I created without thinking, and unless I want to rewrite the whole thing over again, when I haven't even finished this rewrite, I'm going to have to follow those rules.

    I'm happy with the rules, with this story I've decided to tell, but sometimes it's painful to let go of the other stories.

    This kind of ties into my Multiple Characters post where I had to decide with my first book which character's story I wanted to tell for the story I wanted to see in the end. These things are difficult to decide, aren't they? I think they're one of the reasons many writers give up - when they realize the cost of everything.

  3. Interesting post. I like your use of the words Opportunity Cost. I find that an apt way of putting it.

  4. This is a good post. I don't agree about the first person point, however. I've seen several authors, Harlan Coben comes to mind,alternate between first person for the protagonist and third person for others. I think it works quite effectively, actually.

  5. Thank you for the insight in to how you create a story. The elimination of ideas and rules for our WIP's gives me something to think about.

  6. Scott: "I don't agree about the first person point, however. I've seen several authors, Harlan Coben comes to mind,alternate between first person for the protagonist and third person for others."

    Well, maybe for them and their stories, but it was wrong for me and mine! Suum cuique.

  7. Sorry, Scott. Thought you meant in general.

  8. Scott: I never make sweeping generalizations. Nope. Not ever. Never.

  9. Michelle: In my first book, I set up some (conscious and unconscious) rules when I began writing, and halfway through I saw that some of them were not working. The second half of the book is radically different from the first half. Better. But I could never figure out a way to rewrite the first half using the rules of the second half, so I abandoned the whole thing.

  10. Yat-Yee: I am sending you a mental note inscribed with one of the names of God. Put it under your tongue and start writing.

  11. Blah. Rules. This makes me anxious the way that life makes me anxious, because there are only so many choices I can make in life, and then I'm running out of time to do everything.

    It also makes me think of the stories I'm not writing while trying to focus on one story, and that kind of makes me sad b/c I think stories are shaped by what's happening to me in life. Which is just another way of saying there's not time to do everything/write everything in the world.

  12. Editing and removing things is the hardest part of writing, especially for parts that we are deeply interested in and love.

  13. Scott, I have that book of yours downloaded, by the way. It's the one you have a link to on your site, right? I'll read it sometime, but not before I read your current one that's going to make you lots of money so you can quit your job.

    And yes, I'm afraid that's going to happen to Monarch - the rules getting different halfway through. I'm being pretty careful, though, so here's to hoping it works out.

  14. This is a great post, Scott. It doesn't ramble at all. I can see exactly what you're saying here. I can't say I have story ideas I throw away (at least very often), but I do tweak an idea until I think its viable. So maybe I am throwing away a version of a story that would exist in some alternate reality.

  15. Okay, don't lie: did you also watch Treehouse of Horror last night with the golem story? Because I did, and the coincidence is freaking me out.

    Great post, by the way :).

  16. Annie: Rule, method, modus operandi, way of writing this story: they all mean the same thing in this context. Don't let it get you down! It's too easy to panic; I've panicked plenty this year about my current novel and how to tell it in the Best Possible Way. I think that the novel is a flawed artform, and all novels end up being compromises anyway. But that's maybe one of the beauties of the novel.

    Martin: I used to think that way, but the more I focus on character, the less attached I become to my lovely exposition. Snip!

    Michelle: That's the very book. It's not very good, and in fact it is very bad. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway.

    Eric: Thanks! Apparently there's a Jasper Fforde book that talks about the Sea of Words, where everything we cut from our WIPs goes to be washed clean and used by other writers. No word gets wasted!

    Rebecca: While I'm a long-time Simpson's fan, we currently don't own a TV, so I missed Treehouse of Horror. This is apparently just the right time for me to be thinking about golems. But really, when isn't the right time to think about golems? Or zombies?

  17. Thanks, Scott. The note is under my tongue and I'm writing.

    I meant golem, not Golum...

  18. Rebecca, I watched the Treehouse last night! Those are my favorite episodes.

    Scott, funny you should talk about this because I'm in the middle of the dilemma right now. I've been working on my cannibal story, and part of the story is told from the victim's point of view, and last night--admittedly after reading some Tolstoy--I was trying to decide if I should go into the victim's wife's point of view. In my original vision of the story, she plays a prominent role. And, though I didn't quite tell myself this out loud, I always imagined a scene from her point of view at the end. Last night, I found myself thinking how interesting it would be to get into her head sooner. For me that's really exciting, and you're right, it's all about the story you want to write.

    I really like what you said about the cost of cutting and how that can limit other options in the future. That something that I feel...and it's also something that allows for other stories to be told.

    And, though no one else seems to agree, I did think the post rambled a little bit, but I enjoyed the ride!

  19. My daredevil project - three different endings to the same story. Yes, three! You see, I couldn't decide if I wanted Character A to end up with Character B, Character C, or some unknown Character never seen or heard from in the story, other than with references by Character A. It was quite fun changing up the second half of the manuscript for each alternate ending.

    I've also taken a six perspective project and condensed it to one perspective. It definitely adds a different dimension to the story and, maybe one day I'll finish that single perspective tale just for fun.

    I think the fun of writing (i.e., telling stories), is that the possibilities are virtually infinite. We, as writers, are creators and destroyers. We breathe life into our characters and then we snuff the life out of them, sometimes, in later chapters. We control our characters, though some might say their characters control them.

    So, the lofty novel set in Ireland, Scotland, and Chicago somehow ended up a tale set in Nashville, TN, with a side trip to a suburb of Chicago. Why? Because the story I wanted to tell was more concise with one central location, instead of three.

    Lastly, I have a digital folder of omitted sections from each project I've worked on. I let those sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters sit in the vastness of their digital safe, knowing that one day I might need them.


    p.s. the Jasper Fforde series concerns Thursday Next and is pretty remarkable. The Jane Eyre Affair is the first in the series. If you get a chance, read the Thursday Next series. Pretty amazing stuff with big winks to literature and . . . alternate endings.

  20. This was a timely post for me, Scott. I am writing the ending to a book right now, under a self-imposed deadline, and I am more aware than ever about the choices we make when telling a story.

    I cannot yet share this book with my writing group, for fear of the possibilities they might share. I should welcome such a potential slew of ideas, but I don't. Not yet. Because I kind of feel like, in this story, (right now, anyway) there is but the one path....and I have to hack through and find it.

    There is only one way to end this book that stays true to the story I am trying to tell.....and I'll be darned if I know what it is!!!

    I appreciate your post!


  21. Davin: You should just write it out and see how it feels.

    I spent my lunch hour editing my ms, and I'm seeing again how the decisions I made about the new first chapter reverberate through the length of the book. Part of me is fascinated, part of me is groaning about the extra work.

    Scott: I've read The Eyre Affair. Mighty Reader has read all the rest, and keeps pushing me to the shelf on which they sit whenever I'm between books. Someday, I swear. Are all three endings going to be in the final version of your book? That might be very cool.

    Shelley: There comes a point with everything that I'm writing, when I'm near the end of figuring out the story, when I can't let anyone at all talk about it to me. I consciously block out any sort of input because, even though I can't see what I'm after, I know it's out there and I know I'm on the right path. Any outside voices are just interference and I resent it during that miserable phase. "Shut up!" I tell the world. "I have to do this by myself!"

  22. Absolutely, I was trying to get into the new point of view this morning, but I saw how complicated it was and realized I needed a longer chunk of time to make it work. Hopefully I'll be able to try it out tonight! The wife is rubbing cream on her feet while putting her husband down for not having a decent job. I need to get in there!

  23. Scott - in an ideal world, three versions of the book would be published, each with a different ending. The whole thing with Character B, C, or Unknown, is that Character A's reactions are different in various situations throughout the second half of the manuscript based on which character he ends up with. Basically, 1st half would be the same in each version, but the 2nd half would have variations.

    So, if Tolkien's estate can publish all the 'lost stories' well after his death, why can't I have my little scenario come true?


  24. Scott: Okay, but you know that means you have to die first. Talk about opportunity costs...

  25. Sorry. The sentence should read . . . So, if Tolkien's estate can publish all the 'lost stories' well after his death, why can't I have my little scenario come true while I'm alive?

    Oh, and trust me, after I'm dead, there's tons of boxes of 'lost' material in my closet. Someone could make a fortune! Hmmm, get published, fake death, make profit off of 'lost' material . . . : )



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