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Uncle Orson's Writing Class

Uncle Orson's Writing Class
On Rhetoric and Style
May 12, 1998

Question 2:

Why was I so disappointed with Treasure Box as opposed to how much I enjoyed Pastwatch? (I was given both at the same time, so they are easiest for me to compare.) When I read Treasure Box, the beginning (character creation) was far better than what I have ever seen you -- or anyone else -- do in two chapters. As the end approached, I had to force myself to read the rest. It was as if your "rhetorical ability" was slowly thrown out the window with every page starting at Quentin's encounter with Madeleine. Pastwatch, though not the book I like the most, was terrific all the way through -- not a single boring page, not even on first reading.

-- Submitted by Yaniv Aknin

OSC Replies:

The easy answer -- and an accurate one, as far as it goes -- is that not every story is for every reader. In fact, the experience you describe tells me little more than that you simply didn't care for the story I told in Treasure Box, right from the start. If you were noticing the style in those first two chapters, then I had already failed to engage you enough to keep you concentrating on what happens and why; thus it is no surprise that you were not emotionally involved toward the end.

I can speculate endlessly about why. Treasure Box, for instance, deliberately breaks one of the cardinal rules of fantastic storytelling: We have, not just the witchcraft motif, but also a life-after-death, haunted-by-your-sister motif. That's one fantasy element too many in a contemporary "realistic" story; most of the time, a story can bear only one such element. (Lost Boys had two elements, but one was of natural, real-world horror -- the child-killer -- so that only the ghost motif was a contradiction of reality as we experience it. Even so, those two elements were quite overpowering and some readers were lost in that book, as well.) Homebody risks the same perilous flaw -- the house as monster and a ghost -- but I tried to weave them far more closely together than I was able to do in Treasure Box, so they feel more like part of the same story.

Every story presents its own problems and challenges, and the writer, after doing his best to solve or compensate for them, will invariably fail to make the story work for at least some of the readers who normally like his work. There's a reason why some of my books are less popular than others, and it isn't necessarily because some are less well-written than others. Songmaster, for example, is an early work of mine (my third novel), and shows a distressing lack of understanding of structure; yet it is one of my more popular novels, after all these years, because its natural core audience is so emotionally involved in the story that they forgive the flaws. Hart's Hope, however, which is one of my best-written works and still a favorite, is my least-read novel -- in part, I think, because of a long opening that does not emotionally engage the reader, and in part because the events of the story are so unpleasant that upon finishing the book, readers are rarely tempted to thrust it on their friends, saying, "Here, you've got to read this!"

Therefore, the easy answer (but I managed to make it take three long paragraphs, after all, didn't I?) to your question is: Not every story is going to please every reader. Sorry you didn't like Treasure Box.

But this is a writing class, not a Q&A session with readers. And there is also a rhetorical reason why you might have detected a distinct change between the opening (development) portion of Treasure Box and the later (climax) section. My rhetoric changes drastically between those two sections. My development sections -- which often extend two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through the novel, when the milieu and web of character relationships are complex (as in Pastwatch and Enchantment) -- are rhetorically "thick." I am working hard to create the full world in the reader's mind, especially the characters' attitudes, relationships, expectations, and motives. Often I give too much of the point-of-view character's thoughts in the effort to make sure that the story is utterly clear to the reader (though of course I cut back excessive passages that I notice prior to publication).

Once the situation is clear, the elements all laid out before the reader, then I change rhetorical strategies. I am no longer trying to persuade. Either you believe in and care about the characters, or you don't. From this point till the end of the book, I rarely have need of deep penetration into the characters' attitudes, precisely because you already know what the character thinks about this sort of thing. Almost everything can be revealed through action and dialogue, trusting the reader's memory to put it all in context. So those passages of introspection, memory, attitude, analysis are almost entirely missing from the latter portions of my books. They become almost pure action, even though I hope that I have created a lush enough context that the reader will feel the moral and emotional weight of the events without my having to give more than superficial reminders of the issues at stake.

Pastwatch, being extraordinarily complex, keeps introducing new milieux, characters, and moral dilemmas almost to the very end of the book. The "unfolding" is, however, extraordinarily rapid because so much groundwork has been laid. Treasure Box is in many ways quite simple. The pure-action section is much longer. I have since wondered if perhaps I should have done more from the point of view of the young witch, giving more moral weight to the ending; certainly in Enchantment I made sure that we got Baba Yaga's point of view throughout, which makes it work more effectively, I think, than Treasure Box.

But the flaw is a small one. If you had been engaged in the story, then you would have noticed neither the thickness of the development phase (which, contrary to your impression, is not better or richer than usual) nor the thinness of the climax phase. All you would have cared about was what happens and why. So your particular response to Treasure Box may still be more the result of the fact that you simply aren't in the natural audience for that story, though it may also be because of a real rhetorical structure that stretches across most of my stories.

Do I intend to "correct" that "problem"? No. Because I don't think it's a problem, I think it's a virtue. If you read fiction in order to enjoy a distinctive style consistently maintained throughout a novel, you shouldn't be reading my fiction anyway. That's not what I create it for. What I do is create stories and tell them as well as possible. If, for you, the story is the thing, then I might have something for you, both as a writer of fiction and as a writing teacher here in Uncle Orson's Writing Class.


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