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On Mysteries and the Status Quo

I’m a devoted listener to the podcast Writing Excuses — despite their claims to the contrary, they really are that smart — and found their most recent episode, on Middle Grade fiction, to be fascinating. (Defining Middle Grade is contentious, but loosely, it’s fiction for kids 9-12: think Charlotte’s Web, the first Harry Potter book, or the Hardy Boys)

In particular, they discussed the difference between young adult and middle-grade fiction in terms of how they deal with the status quo: Middle-grade fiction tends to focus on some danger or event with the resolution being a return to normalcy. The family is reunited, the adventuring child comes home again, the pig is saved, the bad guy is defeated and everything can go back the way it was.

Conversely, young adult fiction tends to be more interested in blowing apart the status quo, of achieving some revolution. The corrupt regime is toppled, the farm boy is crowned king, bacon is invented, the bad guy is defeated and nothing will ever be the same again.

I started thinking about how this applied to mystery fiction, and found that it’s actually a useful way to divide the genre (sort of) and to think about individual plots and their goals. You can do a rough split in this way between the cozy intellectual Golden-Age mysteries with genteel consulting detectives and the gritty noir-style thrillers with hard-boiled PIs. In both cases, there is usually a crime being solved, but the attitude and payoff are different. The status quo preservers tend to treat the crime as an aberration to be corrected, an offense against the natural order of things; the inciting incident is “something bad has happened.” The payoff is a return to some semblance of normality, with the innocent vindicated and the guilty punished, and generally a sense of relief and satisfaction. The villains are ordinary-seeming people, even heroic people, who have become corrupted and so need to be removed. The status quo upheavers treat the crime as the natural outcome from a corrupt system; the inciting incident is sometimes “this terrible situation is brought to my attention” but usually “enough is enough!”. The payoff is in seeing a change in the system portrayed, a sense of justice done (legal, moral, and/or social), and a sense of hope. The proximate villains might be similar to the other stories, but in the background there are shadowy criminal organizations, corrupt governments, pervasive inequity, and oppression.

As an example of the former form, consider Sherlock Holmes, who is all about maintaining the status quo. He is for the most part uncritical of the social and legal order (indeed, his brother “is” the British Empire in a very real sense, we’re told). A Sherlock Holmes adventure starts with a disruption or a strangeness, and ends in explaining it. Any irrevocable changes to the status quo (notably, a death or two) are accomplished by the villains. Holmes may scold the Bohemian king (or Poirot the Middle Eastern prince) but wouldn’t dream of exposing him. Even where the goal of the protagonist is an explicit change in the world — such as the disruption of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal empire — the structure of the story revolves around thwarting a particular plot (The Valley of Fear and others), or being assaulted by Moriarty and prevailing at cost (The Final Problem). Moriarty’s empire is enough of the status quo that the campaign to uproot it just doesn’t fit the format of a Sherlock Holmes Story. Other examples in this vein include the more cerebral and episodic mysteries: Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, say, or TV shows like Columbo, Monk, or Castle.

As an example of the latter form, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels nearly always involve his detective upending some ingrained injustice, big or small. The world is imperfect, and people feel powerless to do anything about it, or moneyed interests are keen on keeping things this way. Something stinks, and the hero’s going to do something about it — maybe only something small, maybe only helping this one person — but something will be done to make the world stink a little less. The quintessential Spenser novel starts with a little guy getting crushed in the wheels, and Spenser (the wiseass, the guy who doesn’t like following orders, the guy whose friends in high places are secret disgusted with the status quo) comes in and blows the whole thing open. He doesn’t always do much, and he occasionally has to violate principles, but at the end the world is a slightly better place than it was before. Even in his ensemble-oriented books, like A Catskill Eagle, the personal upheaval that represents the wrong in Spenser’s world happens offstage and long enough before to have become accepted enough to be the established state of the world: he’s still rebelling, not reacting. Or, to use one of the founding documents of the genre, consider Hammett’s Red Harvest, where all the authorities in a town are so corrupt that the place is called “Poisonville” and the protagonist is so disgusted that he takes the whole damn thing down. The structure of a story in this vein involves a lot of world-building, with the character doing a lot of learning about the world rather than about the crime. The Harry Dresden books (for that matter, a lot of urban fantasy in the mystery vein) follow this form.

There are important complications to this division. One of the grittiest subgenres of crime novel is that of the serial killer. In a sense, these are all about quashing a scary threat to everyday life, and the minor themes tend to be all about how lives are disrupted and people are too scared to go about their normal routines. Thinking about plots in terms of their relation to the status quo, the serial killer detection subgenre seems to be further divided in two: a back-to-normality sub-sub-genre where a new serial killer is known (and leaves a calling card, for example) and the population live in fear; and an upheaval sub-sub-genre where so-called everyday deaths are actually the work of one already-established villain, and the complacent authorities must be woken up. One intriguing set of stories that I’m having a hard time classifying is certain more modern interpretations of Jack the Ripper as a member of the aristocracy. That (or certain spy stories) is the closest I can come to finding of a true fusion between the two forms: I feel like the protagonists are trying to uphold and restore the status quo by the surgical removal of one small element of it.

Another important complication is the ongoing series. Very often, especially in television, a series of mysteries will have episodes with the goal of returning to the status quo, and an overall arc of needing to overthrow some narrow aspect of it. Castle does this in two ways: more traditionally, of course, is the shadowy conspiracy behind Beckett’s mother’s murder. But also (and I owe the Writing Excuses folks for this insight; I think Mary Robinette Kowal in particular) the romance arc is also an upheaval of the status quo! My current favorite example, though, one I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately, is the ongoing series Hannibal. In it Hannibal Lecter is suitably entrenched to possibly be considered part of the establishment (and acts to entrench himself further), and thus the resolution to the overall series arc must needs be a major upheaval — and as you would expect when each episode is a move toward the status quo, and the status quo is rotten, each of Will Graham’s pyrrhic triumphs further entrenches Dr. Lecter.

In this vein, I can think of a number of examples in the mystery/crime genre where the episodes are status quo-seeking and the overall arc is disruptive, but I’m having trouble thinking of the reverse. Straying outside the genre, there’s Band of Brothers, which could be seen as individual episodes involving dislodging Nazis, with the overall goal of getting home to a normal life. But that’s a stretch, I think.

When the overall plot is about returning to or disrupting the status quo, the sub-plots can independently support that with a similar goal. For example, in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, there are very often two parallel plots: 1) Wooster’s chum gets himself into a pickle and needs to be extricated, and 2) Wooster himself has sparked discord between himself and Jeeves vis some sartorial perversion. Such a scene or subplot can also be a thematic clue: The beginning of Rex Stout’s Gambit shows Nero Wolfe doing something he ordinarily would abhor, burning a book, because it has committed crimes. Like solving a murder, it’s an act of justice, and presages him solving the mystery of the story by doing something he ordinarily would also abhor, compromising a dinner (though not with himself at the table, which would be a bridge too far).

On the other hand, using a subplot with the opposite goal can mix things up a bit. Normalcy-seeking mysteries can be a bit of a downer at the ending (after all, murders can’t be undone) and having a forward-looking subplot often entails upending some part of the status quo — remember earlier, that often such plots end on a hopeful note. Romance plots or friendship plots can add an optimistic element at the end, a sense that the overall effort was good for more than just justice. With upheaval mysteries, efforts against shadowy conspiracies often don’t result in a total upheaval, only a small success and a minor respite; actually solving a crime (even if it turns out to only be the catalyst for other efforts) can provide some sense of finality and resolution.

This brings us to the end, and the role of the status quo frequently determines when the story ends. If the story is seeking a return to normalcy, the story is done when the crime is solved. There might be some aspect of the case still to explain (or subplots to be wrapped up) but in general things proceed very quickly from the moment the culprit is fingered. I feel that noir and hard-boiled stories, by contrast, tend to have more meditative endings, going on for pages or even chapters after any crimes are solved.

So what do you all think?


Posted by on 27 June, 2013 in Mystery, Writing


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2011 In Review

2011 has been an exciting year for me as a writer. I had my first fiction sale, my first podcast sale, and went to my first convention (Boskone). I won a Codex contest, and did respectably well in another. I signed my first autographs, at Readercon. I bought way too many fountain pens.

In terms of the actual writing, I submitted 13 stories a total of 38 times (twice as many submissions as in 2010) to 20 markets. I sold three stories, got four personal rejections (again, twice as many as in 2010) and have two outstanding. I did not manage to keep to my goal of at least one submission each month, but I came very close (missing only November). To keep myself honest, I posted my Duotrope listing for the year below, under the cut.

I made enough from those sales to buy myself a respectable dinner with a glass or two of wine. I haven’t kept as close track of the number of words, but I figure it’s around 100,000 — a longish novel’s worth. That includes the zombie novella that I shelved, which I plan to get back to, and a healthy start to a novel, which I may not.

My goals for the year ahead are pretty modest: I want to at least repeat the performances that are within my control: finish another 10 stories (or, say, 5 stories and a novel?), get the whole batch onto the market at least 40 times. I plan to attend Boskone and Readercon again.

Happy 2012, everyone, and thanks for being around in 2011!

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Posted by on 30 December, 2011 in Writing


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Suspension of Disbelief

Over on Whatever, John Scalzi pokes a little fun at the folks who (are? profess to be?) thrown out of the Lord of the Rings by the viscosity of the lava in Mount Doom. He makes an excellent point that the suspension of disbelief is a highly personal thing, subject to much head-scratching by observers (and especially by writers, who may veer into hair-pulling and sobbing). My comment there started to get overlong, so I’m posting it here.

First, I take his point that the fires of Mount Doom are set up as being magical and important, and are presented in a context where trees walk and orcs are born from mud. He is perfectly correct that it would have been reasonable to have magical or otherwise nonstandard lava in Mt. Doom. And if Jackson had made the lava blue or sparkly or put little morphing orc faces in it or otherwise made it obviously magical, I would have bought that without blinking. But a difference of viscosity is a useless, thoughtless difference, especially in comparison to the more overt differences he mentions, like the shrubbery being alive or the landscape giving birth to orcs, that border on the metaphorical. Subtle differences aren’t always a bad thing — not at all! But subtle differences are more likely to be mistaken for errors.

Those changes he mentions don’t come out of nowhere, either: there are plenty of hints given that we’re about to see something weird: spooky forests where orcs disappear, enough cobwebbing to put a Halloween house to shame, the presence of Christopher Lee, etc. When something comes as a surprise, the work is more vulnerable to booting the viewer/reader out of their suspension of disbelief than at other times, and it takes skill and preparation to avoid that, plus the knowledge of the degree to which disbelief needs to be suspended. If Peter Jackson knew how viscous lava really was but still wanted this particular visual effect, surely he is savvy enough to know how to clue in his geologist viewers that this is what he was doing? Because he can do it well, when he fails we suspect a deeper failure.

Anything that can be done well can be done badly, of course: surely you can envision a version of the Lord of the Rings in which the Ents are presented in such a way as to guarantee that the audience bursts out laughing at the sudden appearance of talking trees?

Perhaps a better comparison would be, not to Ents, but to horses. Writers are always getting horses wrong, treating them like hairy motorcycles. Add hay, drive all day, add more hay, drive all night! Most readers will never know the difference, but people who know horses get thrown out of stories by that sort of thing. If a fantasy writer *needs* to treat a horse like a motorcycle, then that writer needs to prep the reader — by, for example, praising this particular breed of horse, or having a set of magic horseshoes, or… well, that’s getting a little silly, isn’t it? In order to know when it’s actually necessary to treat a horse like a motorcycle, the writer needs to know an awful lot about horses, I should think.

Besides, we as readers and viewers can generally tell the difference between “someone thought this through and decided it should be this way” and “someone was lazy or thoughtless.” Let’s say that I set a fantasy story in rural Ohio and, in among the unicorns and magic wands, describe all the people there as having Southern accents. If all the wonderful folks who know the region then complained that this threw them out of the story, it would be ridiculous of me to counter with, “What, but the unicorns and orange Congressmen were OK?” I could argue until my face turned blue that this was actually a deep philosophical statement about the realignment of culture in a magical world, but would you ever really shake the feeling that I’d just never been to Ohio?

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Posted by on 11 December, 2011 in Writing


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Text, Subtext, and Claude Shannon

Early on after I started writing again, I joined an online critique group, Critters. I got a lot of good feedback from it, but only one critique was so good that I still remember it more than a year later. It was from a pro writer who correctly pointed out that the story wasn’t really *about* anything. There was a plot, to be sure (a complicated one about a murder on a new colony world) but he was right — it was all text and no subtext. A bunch of stuff happened, and one thing led to another, but it just happened. Nothing beyond internal logic drove the plot. It was basically a Seinfeld episode, not that there’s… wait, no, there is something wrong with that. If someone were to have asked me what the story was about, I could have given a superficial description (and did in parentheses above) but I would have had a frustrating trade-off between being brief and being accurate.

What do you want to respond when someone asks what your story’s about? That is, if you’re asked to compress your story into a short bite. You want to feel like you’ve gotten across what’s important, without basically retelling the whole story, right?

In information theory, there’s a concept called entropy. It’s a measure, among other things, of how much information is in a piece of text. When using a program like Zip to compress something without loss, the entropy of that file determines just how small it can get. Let’s say you have two pieces of text that you want to reproduce exactly from a description of limited length. The first one consists of the letter a, repeated 4,000 times. The second one is the result of me banging on my keyboard, typing out a random string of 2,000 letters.

The latter text has very high entropy: each new letter is a surprise unrelated to the letters that came before it, so the only way to exactly reproduce it is to type it out in full. Cost: 2,000 letters. The former text has very low entropy: even if you’d never seen it before, you’d pick up on the pattern pretty fast. In order to reproduce it exactly, my description above tells you exactly how to reproduce it: “The letter a, repeated 4,000 times.” Cost: ~35 letters. (or even, “4000 a’s”: 8 ) In the parlance of the field, the former text could be said to have less information than the latter text.

For any given real text, the best a machine is able to do is to examine it on the byte level and look for common sequences that it has in a library. This is for an exact copy, though, on a mechanical level. If all we care about is getting the gist of it, then neither of the above examples has any information as we usually understand it: it takes about as long to say “4,000 a’s” as “2,000 random letters”. Reproducing the original text exactly or not at all, we take the same meaning from the result as from the original… maybe. (I am cautious here because of having been chastised before that Jackson Pollock paintings are not just random paint drips, they are designed with a purpose and so no I cannot sell my dropcloth.)

Stories work in much the same way, I think. Have you ever heard a young child describe a story they heard? It tends to be just a sequence of events, all the stuff that happened (sometimes in no particular order). Sometimes the summary is nearly as long as the story itself — it is basically a retelling of the story, heavily filtered: “There was a little kid, and the kid went to a cave and there was a cat and the cat’s name was Magersfontein and they went to a cave and there was a spider in a big circle and they squashed the spider and that summoned a demon who ate them both!”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if the only way to describe your story is to tell it, then it’s not really about anything. It is high entropy. I’ll make fun of little kids again: when they tell stories, those stories tend to be random, pulling in all sorts of elements from their life and meandering as things occur to them. If you’ve heard a couple such stories you can get the gist of them pretty easily: “Susie told me another of her stories. This one had monsters and a goldfish, and, um. You need to hide your ‘toys’ better, dear.” You’ll never be able to reproduce the exact story, but you’ll be able to produce one that anyone would believe was told by Susie.

On the other end of the scale is the “high concept” story: “Snakes on a Plane,” for example. Or “The Seven Samurai in the wild west,” goes a long way toward describing “The Magnificent Seven”. Which is a good film, don’t get me wrong. But it’s pretty low entropy, you can get the gist of it in just a few words — if pressed, you could recreate a story based on that that would bear a passing resemblance to the ones on the screen. If there were surprises (the snakes turn out to be robots, the cowboys turn out to be the bad guys, whatever) than you need to add words to get the same level of understanding across.

One is frequently asked to distill a story down to a very short description: an elevator pitch, an agent query letter, a synopsis, or just a friend asking, “I heard that was good, what’s it about?”. The shorter the distillation, the more it needs to get to the core of the story. Here’s an example:

“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again”

This of course is Rick Polito’s famous summary of The Wizard of Oz. (John Scalzi put together a whole list of that sort of thing over at his film column, they’re awesome) This is a technically true description of the text, but at the same time, it’s not really the same story, is it? If you try to reproduce the story just from that description, the result will bear only a passing resemblance to The Wizard of Oz. So what’s missing?

I would argue (he says, going further out on the limb) that the summary is missing 1) the main conflict: “Young girl believes she needs a wizard’s help to go home, but the wizard won’t help her until she kills a witch.” That gets you most of the way there, and if you add in the minor conflicts of the tin man, cowardly lion, and scarecrow wanting sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, you get a lot of the rest of the way there. And that’s the text there: a thin outline of the plot and a summary of the major conflict.

But that doesn’t get you all the way there, I think. If you write a story to that description, I don’t think it’ll feel the same as The Wizard of Oz movie. To get that, you need 2) the subtext: the two points of first the importance of friends and family (Dorothy starts her journey by abandoning her family, and ends it embracing her family by seeing the faces of her new friends in them), and second the somewhat opposed idea that you don’t need to look outside yourself for what you want (Starts with Dorothy seeking not-Kansas and coming upon a bunch of funny-looking short people who need an outsider to solve their problems; end with everyone getting lame symbols of their personal growth and Dorothy not shanking the wizard over the whole secret shoe thing). That’s what makes this story distinctive from others with the same plot. Even if the details are totally different, if your recreation includes those points, you’ll wind up with something that is recognizably The Wizard of Oz.

So what does that mean when writing a story? I think that without a subtext, the story gets hard to pin down. It’ll either compress too far (“Kinda like Finnegan’s Wake” vs “Snakes on a plane.”) and get lost in the crowd, or it won’t compress far enough (“This happened, then this happened, then…”) and nobody will remember the damn thing. I think that if a story doesn’t compress, it gets lost. It goes in one eye and, um, out the … wrong metaphor. It gets forgotten, is what I’m trying to say, it doesn’t make an impression. Even if the prose is fiendishly clever and bits of it are quoted everywhere, I think stories need to really compress to make an impact and need to be de-compressible to be remembered: that is, a story needs to be at its heart simple enough to internalize, and distinctive enough to be its own story and nothing else.

What do you think? Is subtext really that important? Am I missing the point of why a story needs it?


Posted by on 2 August, 2011 in Writing


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The Body and the Bomb post-mortem

I had wanted to put up a thread earlier for my story The Body and the Bomb, published back in April by Crossed Genres, but I don’t think that page is the appropriate place for me to put my thoughts about the story — I don’t entirely subscribe to the “death of the author” or “intentional fallacy” arguments, but nor do I think that someone should read to the end of a story, and then immediately be told by the author that they interpreted it incorrectly.

At the same time, I am trying to become a better writer, and getting feedback on my stories is important to me. So now that a reasonable amount of time has elapsed, here are my thoughts about this story as a post-mortem, and if you feel like sharing your thoughts as well, let me state up front that you are not wrong, even (especially) if you disagree with me.

I’ve put the rest of the post behind a cut tag for those not interested in this particular self-indulgence.

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Posted by on 25 July, 2011 in Mystery, Writing


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On the Killing of Darlings

Just about every writer has heard the advice, “Kill your darlings” (and if you haven’t, you just did). The advice has come to have an almost mythic quality to it. Hell, someone even titled a movie about a writer after it.

The “kill your darlings” formulation apparently comes from Faulkner (who graciously specified that this applies only in writing — which is good, because with Faulkner you never can tell). The original advice, as near I can tell from an exhaustive two-minute Google search, is from Sir Arthur Quilling-Couch’s 1916 book “On The Art of Writing” (Also available at Bartleby, if you can stand the pop-up ads):

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a particularly fine piece of writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

It’s a warning against purple prose, basically: indulge the desire to show off, so as to get it out of your system, then scrub it. It comes out of Quilling-Couch’s general admonition against ornamentation, in fact, in his lengthier discussion of style. Let’s have it in-context, shall we:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

Here’s the thing: he’s right, and he’s wrong. I have a secret love of alliteration and puns. Every now and then while writing I come up with something just awesome. I type it out, admire it, and then I sigh and delete it and move on. It’s not because readers dislike alliteration and puns, but because drawing attention to the text itself is the quickest way to punt a reader out of the story. It’s hard enough to keep the reader entranced without tugging on their sleeve and saying, “Psst! Aren’t I clever?” as one can with a particularly polished piece of prose. Those particular darlings are often your enemies, and need to be ruthlessly culled. (Or at least stored in that one secret text file. You know the one. You tell yourself that you’ll rescue them one day, but you only ever open the file to add more inmates. They eat each other when you’re not watching, you know.)

But he’s wrong in that sometimes the very fine writing needs to be there, or at least doesn’t hurt. Internet quote databases are chock full of unmurdered darlings, and rightly so. Exquisite turns of phrase are what we live for, as readers and writers, and there’s no sense editing toward mediocrity. If something is so awesome that it becomes a speed bump, why not try bringing the rest of the text up closer to its level? A diamond isn’t out of place in a jewelry box, after all.

Even some of those good darlings do need to die, though, not because you must kill them but because you must not save them. They can be downright poisonous to the editing process.

Case in point: in my story The Body and the Bomb, I had this great section of dialogue between the Chief Constable and the Medical Examiner. The ME was just enjoying stringing out his little triumph of deduction, and he got so close to the actual truth of the matter, falling just short of it. It was a very nice piece of dialogue… but after I made a necessary change to the order of the scenes, it didn’t fit anymore: it was too early to have that deduction, and it risked making them all look stupid.

I tried everything to make it fit. I tried rewriting the scene it was in again to let it stay, I tried moving it to a different scene (necessitating the rewriting of half the dialogue in that scene), I tried swapping out the Chief Constable for a different character who didn’t have as formal a relationship with the ME, I tried — well, I tried everything. It became its own little singularity: an island of awesome that created its own sea of suck. And I wasted far more time trying to make it fit than was justified by the enjoyment the reader would get from it.

Maybe it would be better to state the advice as, “Do not rescue your darlings,” then, to emphasize that sometimes they really can live, as long as they behave themselves.

In conclusion, I am going to boggle at the idea of Faulkner reading books on writing style.


Posted by on 8 June, 2011 in Writing


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What Fiction Writers Can Learn From Moonshiners

Distillation of spirits is a wonderful process in which one starts with an alcoholic liquid and proceeds to remove as much of the water as possible in order to concentrate the alcohol and flavors. This is made possible by the fact that different liquids have different boiling and freezing points.

The simplest method for doing this is freeze distillation, as for making applejack: You take a pot of hard cider outside on a cold night, leave it on the porch to partially freeze, then the next morning you break the water ice on top, discard it (or boil it for your tea) and keep the remainder. Because the alcohol remains liquid at much colder temperatures, the remaining liquid will have a higher alcohol content, which will continue to increase as the process is repeated. Now, if I were to have done this in grad school (and I’m not saying I did) I might have noticed that the faint sulphur smell you sometimes get with hard cider (particularly if I procrastinated through proper cidering season and instead fermented Welch’s apple juice concentrate) gets magnified tremendously so that nobody actually wants to drink the result especially after someone mentions methanol, and so it would have sat in my closet for four years until I moved apartments. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

The trouble with distillation is that it’s never just water, alcohol, and good flavors — there are impurities in any fermented liquid, other alcohols like methanol, trace toxins. If all you do is remove water, then the concentration of those undesirables will increase too. Distillation based on boiling can address this.

It’s easier to control boiling than freezing. Different liquids boil at different temperatures. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does, and so if you heat a pot of, say, wine almost to 100C, you’ll get a lot of alcohol vapor, plus some water vapor, and whatever else has either begun to vaporize or been carried along with these vapors. This can then be moved away from the heat and cooled down (such as in one of those coiled tubes you always see) and the stored result will have a much higher alcohol content than the original liquid.

Boiling is not instantaneous: as you apply heat, the temperature rises, and so the things that boil off at lower temperatures start to boil off sooner. As the temperature rises, some stuff boils away entirely, and different liquids start coming out the spout. When you put the spurs to that pot of mash the first stuff that comes off is going to be at the real low-temperature end, before the ethanol starts to vaporize: not at all like what you want the end product to be. This is what they call the foreshots, it happens to contain some particularly nasty stuff, and is discarded.

There will be a transition from the foreshots to the first drops of real liquor, it’s not always easy to tell where the foreshot ends. After a little while you’re going to get stuff that smells and tastes an awful lot like whiskey… but not quite. It’s going to be harsh, and there are going to be remnants from the foreshots still in the system. This stuff that comes out first is called the head.

The heart comes next: this is right around the point where you’re getting mostly ethanol out. By the time you’ve gotten to the heart, the worst impurities of the head have already gone by, and you haven’t heated up enough to vaporize some of the heavier stuff.

Sooner or later that sweet spot called the heart is going to pass by, and what comes out next is called the tail. The tails are not pure like the heart, but get interesting. Remember too that you’re cooking the mash as you go. Flavors are changing in there, stuff’s breaking down. It gets separated out, but not always thrown away.

The art comes in at the cut: to get the smoothest distillation, you need to cut off as much of the heads and tails as possible, saving only the liquid that came out of the tap in between. Sometimes the smoothest liquor is not what’s wanted, though, so character and distinctiveness can be achieved (at some risk) by keeping some of the head or tail. There can be redistillations (including the addition of new flavors, or separate distillations of the tails which are then added back) in which case this becomes a repeated process. The bottom line is that the distiller needs to know what to save and what to toss, and has to be willing — eager — to throw out some volume of saleable liquid so that what remains is the best it can be.

Now, I suspect that I already have the attention of most writers just by virtue of talking about distillation. But I brought this up and expounded on it at length because I periodically see people refer to the distillation of ideas, especially in writing, and I think they don’t know how just right they are to make that comparison.

Let’s say that you’re plotting a story and need to fill in a few idea gaps. You’ve got a character who you haven’t fleshed out, and you know basically what you want them to do, but not why. This is a process that a lot of writing books talk about, but my favorite writer on the subject is Orson Scott Card, who gave an example of a hero whose family was killed by a villain, and is chasing that villain. The question posed is: Why?

You’re still getting the furnace stoked up and your brain hasn’t really started to bubble yet. The first idea to come up is probably going to be the easy stuff with the low boiling points: obvious answers and cliches. In this case, if you’re like most people, the first idea you reach for is likely to be a cliche: the hero wants revenge.

But for just about any problem like this, you’re going to be able to keep generating ideas. The easy stuff boils off, and if you’re slow you might reach for something similarly easy: the villain’s a bad guy who needs to be stopped. The hero is seeking justice, not revenge. There is some virtue in the head, though, because the obvious stuff is easy to relate to. The reader will accept it readily and might get bored but not confused. (Hey, methanol’s tasty too)

As you get going and have to get past the easy stuff, the ideas you come up with start getting more interesting, more complicated. I think the other idea Card gave was, the hero is following the villain to join up: having seen such an impressive display of power/authority/dominance, the hero has to be in on it.

You can go further: the hero doesn’t know who the villain is and is pursuing for another reason. The villain left behind an article of value while murdering the family and the hero is honor-bound to return it. The villain spared the hero’s life and the hero has to know why. The hero is entering a religious order and must first make peace with the villain. The hero is stalking the villain out of sheer obsession. The hero simply likes killing people and the villain seems like a challenging target. The hero feels guilt over failure to protect the family and has a need to reopen that wound repeatedly by just happening to bump into the villain at cocktail parties. The hero thinks that the villain would make the ultimate sexual conquest. The hero must deliver a singing telegram to the villain. The hero has come to hate people of the villain’s ethnicity and is simply committing genocide. The villain wasn’t really responsible for the deaths and the hero is trying to assuage his conscience.

As the list grows, though, I think the “interesting” factor fades. There’s stuff in the back of your brain with high boiling points, the very weird or the uncomfortable. It’s harder to come up with plot-relevant ideas while still having a character the audience can relate to, so either the relevance fades a bit or the character-as-described becomes harder to identify with. It becomes much more tempting toward the end of the list to start changing the premises as you get toward the tail — in the list above, for example, all the ideas except the last one took for granted the villain’s guilt. They also started to get more out of the vague fantasy milieu toward the end. I think that the more you get toward the tail, the more the story itself has to change to accommodate them. The ideas can also start becoming uncomfortable, drawing on very personal or disturbing stuff, where one’s brain does not like to dwell.

Now, I’ve talked so far about individual choices rather than picking a range, but a story as a whole consists of a series of these choices. The story winds up having a kind of distillation profile according to where those individual choices came from. If you always picked the first idea that came to mind, then your story is going to be nothing but heads and foreshots. It’s easy to tell a story that’s mostly heads because there aren’t any surprises. The story arc is a straight line from A to B, the characters are as 2-dimensional as paper.

If, on the other hand, you always discarded the first twenty ideas you came up with and went for the tail idea, the story becomes difficult to read. The characters are hard to relate to (or easy in an uncomfortable way), their motivations are obscure or painful, the world is difficult to understand or to endure. These aren’t bad ideas, some of them are wonderful ones. A sprinkling of them can add enough flavor to make the difference between a good story and a great one. But a lot of them can overwhelm and repel readers. (I think, by the way, that there can be a distinct divide between editors and readers about where the tail is, in the same way that a whiskey connoisseur can appreciate and enjoy flavors that a casual drinker would find unpalatable)

Bootleggers Moonshiners tend to make a broad cut — including too much of the head and tail — for the sake of not wasting any booze. As a result, the real greedy ones can poison people. I think that writers tend to do so because they fall in love with their ideas. They become enamored of ideas that make them feel clever, of cliches that keep the plot together where it otherwise will fall apart, of shocking ideas that are used only to shock. Fortunately they don’t poison anyone (except slush readers who drink Maalox straight from the bottle) but they don’t necessarily do themselves or their readers any favors.

I think that a good story has a distillation profile like a good whiskey. For a good clean story you try to make a series of decisions that are interesting and non-obvious but not completely out of left field. No stock characters, no white rooms, cliches are avoided like the plague (sorry), but also no huge surprises, nothing deeply uncomfortable, nothing that might make the reader say “nobody would ever do that” or “that would never happen that way” (either honestly or in denial), no plots so intricate you need graph paper to keep track. If I could get to the point where I could reliably write a story like that, I’d count myself a damn fine writer. But I think that the real masters are the ones who can successfully make a broader cut, who know exactly where to cut to best bring in their weird ideas and to artfully use a few cliches.

This also works on the large scale, I think. It’s been said that to really master the art of writing fiction, you need to first write a million words of crap. (Or, you need to spend 10,000 hours at it) Never mind the skill and technique, there’s stuff going on here at the idea level too. You can look at it in terms of distillation: anyone who’s coming to writing having read widely is going to have a head full of other peoples’ plots, cliches, and other undesirables that need to be boiled off. These foreshots need to be gotten rid of, and I suspect that this happens mostly by writing those stories and trunking them.

Then there’s the head: all the plots and characters that aren’t on their face overused or cliched, but maybe aren’t as deep as they could be, maybe are kind of predictable. I think that there’s a process of getting used to tapping one’s experiences and emotions at play here, where a writer has technical skill and knows where the big rocks are but still needs practice at getting to the interesting and profound. Such a writer might go through the exercise above and think they’re hitting tail ideas when really they’ve only just gotten to the heart.

I do think that there’s a tail as well, though much less prominent. I’ve seen a number of writers who seem to write for so long in one vein that they seem to get lost up their own, um, navels. They write stories that can really appeal to fellow writers and jaded editors but maybe might be described as “unapproachable”? Of course I’m definitely at the head end of this process, so I’m seeing this from a distance and possibly with a little envy ;)

Anyway, I’ve gone on quite a while and you probably have a laundry list of the exact ways in which I am utterly wrong. I’m dying to hear all about it, maybe the ones toward the end will be particularly interesting…

(ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that the term I was looking for in the title was “Moonshiners”, not “Bootleggers”. Hence the URL. Sorry about that — it was the first thing that came to mind)


Posted by on 1 June, 2011 in Writing


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