The great thing about a dedicated writing blog is that now instead of yapping at specific people about my writing, I can yap into the aether and self-indulgently talk about stuff nobody cares about.
This set of essays is a companion to my short story, "Apples and Cinnamon", which you should read for context before reading this (also because it's a nice story and it would make me feel fuzzy). I'll be discussing origins, thought processes in (re)writing, style, symbolism, interpretation, and themes, so whenever you're ready, go ahead and hit the jump.
As stated in my Author's Note, I wrote this story based on one that ErrorBlender on Stickpage wrote for The Valley of Dreams tournament I hosted from June to December of 2014. For the uninitiated, the way it worked was people entered original characters and were paired up against each other over four rounds. Each round had an overall theme derived from dreams (warped past, self-reflection, bizarre occurrences, nonlinear time) and each pair was given a specific story prompt and optional narrative or stylistic challenge.
The original story comes from the first round, Past Projection, where the umbrella prompt was to write a story that takes place in the present but is about the past. Basically, a story in which the instigating factors have already occurred.
The individual prompt was:
Setting: In and around a kitchen.
Scenario: One of your characters is preparing a meal for the other character but it turns out there's a poltergeist haunting the kitchen because your luck is terrible.
Prompt: The poltergeist is taken care of by the end of the story. I imagine that your characters would collaborate, but that's up to you.
And the narrative challenge was to write an hourglass plot (TVTropes link), which is where two characters switch places in some non-physical way (e.g., fiscally, ideologically, or socially).
In ErrorBlender's story, his opponent's character, Deul, shows up at his character's, Cooper's, apartment to discuss Cooper's girlfriend's, Alice's, death. Later it conspires that there's a ghost in the apartment, and not just any ghost, but Alice's.
And you know what? I thought that was an awesome idea for a story. A guy is dealing with the death of a close friend and then said friend shows up as a ghost and he finally comes to terms with the death.
The problem was, to put it lightly (and if you're reading this, ErrorBlender, I'm sorry for what I'm about to say, but if you read my feedback, none of this should be a surprise), I had some major issues with the execution.
See, ErrorBlender has a place in my heart, based on his Valley of Dreams stories, as a writer who consistently makes grievous errors in nonconventional ways. It makes his stories uniquely memorable (which isn't a compliment, when you think about it), because he routinely writes ideas for potentially phenomenal stories, which are then let down by surrounding factors like wooden characterization, stilted dialogue, and less than graceful language—but still understandable and varied enough to hold interest, which is more than I can say about other stuff I've read—with a tendency to switch between present and past tense (which, admittedly, is a common problem).
Case in point, his Past Projection entry. (Read it here, first story, before you go on if you care about spoilers or context.)
A major problem was a lack of focus, plot-wise. The story's resolution occurs when Cooper sacrifices himself to bring his girlfriend back to life, which implies that the conflict was her being dead in the first place. I don't know about you, but the fact that someone is dead isn't a conflict, because it already, y'know, happened.
I suppose the conflict could also have been Cooper coming to terms with Alice's death, resolved by having a conversation with her and then committing suicide, but that doesn't work because the conflict of the story definitely wasn't Cooper's grief, as his emotional state had little to no focus, and also I'm not sure that he even has emotions.
The biggest thing that counted for a plot was the question of why Alice died in the first place, because most of the relevant dialogue was dedicated to that. The thing is, despite the characters constantly dancing around the circumstances of her death, the events leading up to them, and her supposed sacrifice, we never actually find out why or how she died. Which is infuriating because both characters know what happened to her, but they're arbitrarily withholding it from the audience (possibly because the author didn't think it was important?).
The next biggest problem was that the characters, weren't. Alice was a plot device (a Lost Lenore, if you will), Deul was entirely exposition up to the point where he became a deus ex machina (the "say the things that are necessary to advance the plot" school of writing), and Cooper was literally Bella Swan.
In order to describe how awful Cooper Price was in this story, I feel the need to pull out one specific quote (emphasis mine).
“I can’t contact the dead, Cooper. I can only burn.” [Deul] stated.
“No, not you as in you. YOU as in your curse.” Cooper gestured to Deul by opening both palms. “You made a deal or something with the spirits, right?”
“Yeah bu...” Deul stopped as he pieced together what Cooper was planning. “No Cooper. Don’t you dare ask the spirits.”
“I want to. She gave up her life for my meaningless and problematic one.” Cooper argued. “I can’t have that bearing down on me.”
AND THEN HE USES HIS CLEARLY NONCONSENTING FRIEND TO COMMIT ASSISTED SUICIDE.
THAT'S SUPER NOT OKAY.
Cooper's woodenness comes off as sociopathy in other parts of the story as well, like when he realizes that his dead girlfriend is probably in his apartment, as a ghost, right now, and he needs to think of a way to verify it's her...and he changes the topic to lunch. A+.
(When your SO has reason to suspect you're in the room as a ghost and you have to practically write, "HEY DIPSHITS, IT'S ME," on their lunch to get their attention back to you, the ghost of their beloved, you may have made some poor life choices.)
But like I said, there was the potential for a truly compelling story in there, so I took a stab at it. (Whether or not I succeeded is an exercise for the reader.)
I made the following changes:
- Change the characters (Cooper to Isa, Deul to Desmond, Alice to Lenore) and give them distinct, believable characterization
- Remove the powers and focus on the personal struggles of the deuteragonists
- Smooth the plot progression (no pulling card codes out of any asses or coincidentally finding notes on shelves)
- Clarify the circumstances of Lenore's death
- Add the hourglass element (in my case, guilt and acceptance)
- Excise the suicide
And something days later, I had a story that was...not "Apples and Cinnamon". Yes, "Apples and Cinnamon" had an earlier version way back in September 2014, which had a stronger focus on the ghost shenanigans.
Suffice to say, I will not post it because it was not very good. The emphasis on ghost shenanigans detracted from Isa and Desmond's grief and a lot of the writing was emotionally manipulative as opposed to genuinely character-based (e.g., a scene in which Isa talks about going to coffee where the barista asks if he wants the two usual). While it was possibly effective, it was more about getting an emotional response than developing actual characters and sympathy (the The Fault in Our Stars school of writing). A story should be about people, not being sad.
I'd wanted to rewrite it since November-ish, but I didn't until around May 2015, which was incidentally the time I got seriously acquainted with fan fiction (Supernatural fan fiction, if you care, but that's not important).
The point is, reading other people's writing got me to rewrite my story into something less crap.
I toned down the ghost shenanigans (the obvious ones, as on reflection "Apples and Cinnamon" has ghost shenanigans right from the start), reworked the dynamic between Isa and Desmond (originally they were friends, but now they're professional and only connected outside of that through a mutual best friend), changed the tense from past to present, and focused on the characters' grief and coping mechanisms as opposed to the whole ghost business. I also trimmed out the unnecessary events from the first draft and added bulk in the form of character development.
I think that the new characterization (Isa as distraught but friendly, Desmond as passive-aggressive and outwardly steady but internally conflicted, Lenore as earnest but hot-tempered and occasionally acidic) is the main thing that pulled "Apples and Cinnamon" from being crap to something I'm actually quite proud of.
The working title for this one was "Fire", but that's not saying much, as most of my working titles are things like "why" or "this is a terrible idea". The eventual name, "Apples and Cinnamon" is courtesy of my friend Varicella. I was originally against it because when I see "Apples and Cinnamon", I think "pie", not "grieving and death". I did eventually use it, because the title I had in mind, "Ashes to Ashes" was admittedly hackneyed, whereas "Apples and Cinnamon" had a specific analogy to the story, as something first innocent and warm, then later revealed to have unexpected significance. (And wow, that was a pretentious sentence.)
Don't think too much about the titles of any story I write, because honestly, I'm awful at coming up with them and they're usually arbitrary as all get out. Anything meaningful is in the bulk of the text.
Rewriting a Story
"Apples and Cinnamon" is, despite my changes, a rewrite.
The inevitable question is: How much can you change before a story is no longer the story you're rewriting?
And no, I wouldn't say that "Apples and Cinnamon" is still the same story that ErrorBlender wrote. It has different themes, characters, and style, so what's left? Well, some of the plot elements are the same (though definitely not the ending), the location is the same, and the setup and main premise is the same (in that there are two acquaintances and a dead girlfriend, anyways).
Having said that, I still consider my story a "rewrite", as opposed to "inspired by", because they both have the same skeleton: one person visits an acquaintance's apartment to talk about the recently deceased girlfriend, but the dead girlfriend shows up as a ghost. The details, like the power dynamic between the acquaintances, the relationships with the girlfriend, and the circumstances of the girlfriend's death, don't matter as much so long as the broad strokes stay the same. Even the fact that the original characters had powers doesn't change the overall picture, because the story is about people, not people with powers.
There's a decision in rewriting a story—especially one you have a lot of issues with—in how true you should be to the original. I tried to stay as close as I could, and even though I changed a lot, I think that most of the big things were additive as opposed to actually changing what was in the original (except for the ending, of course).
For example, in the original, Deul knew Cooper well enough to visit him at home and know the circumstances of Alice's death. All of that is still true in my version, except now Desmond is Isa's postgrad and Lenore was his best friend.
Then there are little continuity nods, like secret knocks, card codes, and fish. Instead of Cooper being a dude in a full-body robot suit prosthesis/iron lung, Isa has a prosthetic leg, and they're both scientists with poor coping skills (although admittedly Isa is a medical researcher whereas Cooper is probably some kind of engineer. But still, SCIENCE). Instead of Deul with his fire powers, Desmond is a normal guy, but he still inadvertently causes girlfriend's death in a fire (which I assume is what happened in the original, but I'm just guessing).
I bring this up because rewriting and remixing other people's work is kind of a staple of writing. People have been doing remixes of classic literature (e.g., Shakespearean plays and Victorian lit) or even older work since forever, not to mention the obscene amount of fan fiction circulating the internet. Actually, one of my favorite books, Beastly by Alex Flinn, is a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast (though admittedly I haven't read it in years).
Sometimes so much stuff changes between the original stories and the new versions that people ask, "why not write something original?"
Well, most people don't want to. They're writing the story because there's something they love about the source material. And, in that sense, a rewritten, revamped, or remixed story is a sort of love letter to the original work. You want to keep those broad strokes and have those continuity nods and show you did your work and really care. Things like setting details and remixed dialogue, that's an inside joke, a little thing to wink about and say, "Oh, I see what you did there." It's not important or necessary, but it seems like the thing to do, if you catch my drift.
I wouldn't say that I love ErrorBlender's story, but like I said, I saw the premise and went, "BRILLIANT." Staying faithful to the parts I can, even if it's for inconsequential things like a secret knock, is just respect; if you're doing a tribute, you ought to do it properly.
So yes, hypothetically I could have made "Apples and Cinnamon" about grief and coping without having two guys, an apartment, cooked fish, and a ghost girlfriend, but that would defeat the purpose, because the idea and premise I love is from someone else's work, and it wouldn't be the same if I changed it. There's nothing wrong with embracing that (as long as, y'know, you give credit and don't plagiarize).
Rest assured, I will have much more to say about this topic when I start posting fan fiction.
I mentioned earlier that one of the big reasons I finally rewrote "Apples and Cinnamon" was that I had just gotten into fan fiction.
The fan fiction I want to mention as an influence is "The obeisance of memory", a Supernatural S4 AU in which Dean loses all of his memories upon returning from Hell (spoiler, Dean went to Hell at the end of S3). This is one of my favorite fanfics ever, and the biggest reason for it is the writing style. The voice is amazing and it introduced me to the viability of present tense in a serious, compelling narrative.
I think it works so well in "The obeisance of memory" because it's a personal story: a man deals with a past he can't remember while surrounded by people who are supposedly close to him, all while trying to figure out how to stop the apocalypse. Present tense, in addition to the narrative voice, offers a closeness that you can't achieve with past tense third person, and it adds the freedom of stream-of-consciousness, which works well for that story.
I've only ever written past tense before, because in my mind, that was how stories worked. As a result, "Apples and Cinnamon" is the first story I've ever written in present tense. I still believe that third person past tense is the "default" way to write a story that's about events or a conflict between people, but now I'm adding that present tense is equally valid for personal stories and internal conflicts.
"Apples and Cinnamon", a story about a man confronting his boss in the aftermath of their mutual best friend's death, is very much a personal story.
Present tense pushes for a slower pace than past tense (because honestly, present tense action scenes are a little confusing) and it's more natural to hang around in the protagonist's internal monologue than it would be in past tense.
It's not that you can't use past tense for personal stories and extensive internal monologues. It just flows better in present tense, because past tense always feels like someone telling a story after the fact, and nobody wants to hear a story that goes, "He walked down the hallway, then paused to think [blank]. He got up and thought [blank]." After a certain amount of nothing actually happening, you start feeling like the storyteller might want a second draft.
My point being, past tense is better for actions than monologuing, so it's preferable when actions are more important than the thought processes working up to them. Show, don't tell, and all that.
On the other hand, when the thought processes are the endgame, present tense is A+, which is why I wrote "Apples and Cinnamon" that way.
Just pick one or the other. Don't switch arbitrarily because that's wrong and confusing.
I've never been a huge fan of symbolism. When I read stories, I don't go trawling for meaning in certain objects or colors, because the story, not the metatext, should carry the story.
That said, symbols are still an important part of writing, as long as they serve the narrative and not the other way around. They should never be the focus of the writing or distract from it, but for people who look for them, they should add some depth to the narrative by giving insight into motivations, characters, or themes.
When I write a story, I don't think, "I'm going to use these symbols, and they're going to mean this." Usually, my symbol writing process involves writing, seeing something that can become a symbol, and then changing stuff so it becomes one. After all, anything can be a symbol; it just depends on context.
(e.g., a light is just a light, but a light constantly associated with a certain emotion, like trepidation, isn't just a light anymore.)
The main symbol in "Apples and Cinnamon", of course, is the color red.
Everything red has been affected by or is attached to Lenore in some way, whether it's her red sweater, the cranberry juice, the burgundy vase, the mahogany frame on her faculty photo, or even the nonexistent apples and cinnamon potpourri.
As far as symbols go, it's not particularly complex or profound, but it shows Lenore's presence in the apartment even when she isn't there.
(Fun fact, the original version had guava juice instead of cranberry. I changed it when I got further into the story and realized I was turning red into a symbol and decided that cranberry juice would better tie into the whole theme. After all, if you write a symbol, you ought to go all the way.)
Of course, there's the association of red with blood and, by extension, life, but at that point I'm trawling for meaning.
I suppose I should mention apples and cinnamon, too. Originally, apples and cinnamon were orange and cloves, but I got around to looking up what those scents mean. According to this website, orange and cloves means harmony, memory, and protection whereas apples and cinnamon means peace, love, and spirituality. It's just my opinion, but I think that the latter is more appropriate for a ghost story involving a lost love, especially considering the whole apple pie connection to hominess. The fact that apples and cinnamon tie into the color symbolism is a bonus.
I don't expect anyone to know about aromatherapy symbolism going into my story. I don't expect them to look it up afterwards, either. It's just a little meaning tucked into the bulk of the story that you can look more into if you want to extract more meaning.
As far as symbolism goes, "Apples and Cinnamon" is pretty light. Which is, y'know, fine. Symbolism should be the spice of a story, not the meat. God forbid you drown everything in ostentatious symbolism until your pretentiousness starts oozing off of the pages and someone needs to fetch some antiseptic.
Death of the Author
I'm a firm believer of Death of the Author, which is where the author's opinion on their work is no more or less valid than any other reader's opinion. I know that's a bit incongruous, considering this five thousand or so word lecture about my writing, but bear with me.
"Apples and Cinnamon" is a touch more ambiguous than most of my other work, because explicating certain details would detract from the important parts of the story. There are a lot of ways to interpret events, and in my mind, all of them, given proof from the text, can be equally valid.
One of those things is why Lenore doesn't show up in the apartment earlier (it's been two weeks of Isa being a useless lump, after all).
I say she doesn't show up earlier because she's haunting Desmond, not Isa. What that says about her relationship with him is an exercise for the reader, but there's evidence of Lenore's presence even before Desmond reaches the apartment, what with the minor flashback and cold. It also explains why only Desmond hears, feels, smells, and sees her.
Oh, and let's not forget the sort-of-maybe possession. Desmond isn't normally outspoken and indignant, preferring to stay more on the passive side, especially when it comes to his boss. When he yells at Isa, it's partially because he is angry, but he's also being influenced by Lenore (who's established as a fiery-tempered sort of person) into being more physical than he normally would be.
(This should go without saying, but don't yell at and shake your suicidal friends. That makes you a bad person.)
I've heard a few other interpretations from friends, like that Lenore brought Desmond to Isa to help him, which is perfectly possible.
Stuff like that makes me think about whether or not it matters if symbolism and meanings are intentional.
And no, I don't think it does. Writing is about getting ideas from the writer's head onto the paper, then from the paper into the reader's head. What the reader reads isn't necessarily what the writer writes, and if the reader extracts meaning that wasn't intended, it doesn't make the meaning any less real.
You probably shouldn't credit people for accidentally writing complex, flawed characters, but you can't deny that if it happens (and rest assured, it does), you still get a compelling character out of the mix.
There's always stuff going on outside of the frame, some of which you're meant to figure out on your own, and some of which you'll infer whether the author intended it or not. I mean, part of the fun as a reader is reading between the lines. If I spelled everything out, it would be a tedious, massive pain in the neck (both for the author and reader).
It's part of why you're supposed to show, don't tell, because showing lets the reader fill in blanks and build a fuller picture than just saying, "John is a cool guy." Directing meanings is an inexact science, sure, and you don't always get what you want, but even misaimed characterization is better than describing a personality and hoping the reader will buy it.
I say that Desmond is a bit passhole-aggresshole, has trust issues, and access to a full range of emotion even though he's a bit subdued about displaying it because (and this is going to sound bad) his personality is in part based on mine. Most people aren't going to interpret him exactly like that, and that doesn't make them any less correct because hey, I'm just the author. Who cares what I think?
"Apples and Cinnamon" is about grief. If that surprises you, you might want to go back and actually, y'know, read the story.
Grief is kind of a big deal. It's one of those extremes that defines what sort of a person you are, and by definition it's not an easy thing to get through.
Isa and Desmond are very different people, so when they experience the same tragedy, they react to it in entirely different ways.
Isa more or less shuts down, so it's easy to say that he feels more grief than Desmond does. Some might argue his relationship with Lenore was closer since they were married and therefore his grief is more grief than Desmond's. Between temporarily cutting everyone out of his life and entertaining thoughts of suicide, Isa doesn't handle Lenore's death particularly well. (Also note that Isa suffers survivor's guilt whereas Desmond does not.)
Desmond, on the other hand, is outwardly okay. He doesn't take a break from work, he goes to talk to Isa, and he stays composed. But since we're in his point of view, we can tell that's not entirely the case. He's not as steady on his feet as he appears, and he's torn between what he's feeling and what he thinks he's supposed to feel as well as what he's actually feeling. It's a different nature of internal conflict, for sure, but it's just as real a form of grief.
I don't think either character is particularly experienced with loss (as much as anyone can be, anyways), so they're both dealing with it however they can—Isa by bringing it into focus, and Desmond by pushing it away.
I think it's important to consider Desmond's example because a lot of people tend to overlook the quieter forms of sentimentality for those that are more easily apparent. Just because Desmond doesn't let his grief affect his work or life doesn't mean he isn't feeling it just as much as or more than Isa is. It's the same way with Desmond's love for Lenore, which, while of a different nature than Isa's, is still more than platonic and no less important.
It's one of those weird things in popular fiction where people show the depth of relationships by having people act in dramatic ways (e.g., Bella Swan throwing herself off of a cliff because of her grief-induced ex-boyfriend hallucination, yes this happened). Or how a lot of romance is obsessive and all-consuming because a lot of people apparently don't understand how healthy relationships work.
This probably won't surprise anyone, but I don't write romance. I honestly don't think that romantic love is that important, and it's certainly not more important than familial, fraternal, or being a decent person love.
I find it's more important to explore relationships as a whole and love, if it's there, will come naturally out of that. I have a lot better time writing friction between characters than chemistry, and I'm not sure if that says something about me, but it's true. Regardless, people are going to have friction, and it's important to have in a story, because as my Theatre 101 professor says, conflict is the source of drama. Even when people love each other, there will always be differences in opinion and rocky patches. A relationship where there aren't just isn't balanced.
My point is, when you focus on strong emotions like love or grief, there's an alarming tendency to drop everything else out of focus, losing important context. I can't deny it's easier to see the overt emotionality evident in characters like Isa, but it doesn't mean more subtly conflicted characters like Desmond are any less significant.
I'm proud of how "Apples and Cinnamon" turned out. I probably won't think so a year or two down the line, but right now, "Apples and Cinnamon" is a work that is about as good as I can make it.
I've said this before, but I think it's not just important to read and write, but also to think about writing. At its core, writing is about communication and storytelling is about ideas, not words or sentences or characters doing stuff.
These essays are a way of getting the meta thoughts out there, and a way of thinking through concepts and practices in the context of a fully-realized work. Not everyone cares, of course, but that's okay.
There are more topics in relation to this story, but I'm holding off on those discussions for future, more relevant works.
For now, I'll just leave this here. Cheers!