This is not a post about writing dialogue.
Last weekend, I caught up with an old friend over dinner. We first met in a now-defunct writers’ group, back when I first had an inkling I might want to give this whole writing thing a shot. As one of my first beta-readers and original fans, I owe a lot to her critiques from those early years. She and I have been in and out of touch, but thankfully we’ve recently reconnected.
She’s a fan of speculative fiction, but she feels that genre fiction is sometimes too much in Conversation* with itself to reach the wider audience it seeks with its “big ideas.” Imagine two mirrors reflecting each other. Was genre looking outside itself as much as it should? She conceded this was more a problem in the past than now, where genre has a much larger diversity of voices and perspectives.
Our chat lasted a good hour, and we debated the finer points of each other’s opinions, and each conceded to the other certain exceptions and nuances. I’m not going to reopen the debate between genre and literary fiction here,** but I went home asking myself a lot of questions I hadn’t considered before. Who am I in Conversation with when I sit down to write a story? How do those Conversations affect the stories I tell?
This may seem obvious, but the first person I’m in Conversation with is myself. Even with I’m just messing around, there’s a lot of interior dialogue*** going on between my conscious and unconscious selves. Everything that I write can’t help but be a continuation of that discussion. What do I love? What do I hate? What do I fear the most? I don’t lay out my whole interior life raw on the page, but certainly my passions inevitably leak through.
Then I (hopefully) publish a story and I have a Conversation with the readers. They bring their own perspectives to my story, exchanging ideas in a way that even if I’ve done my job right I only have limited control over. Can I anticipate who might be reading my story? To a degree, I can, by submitting to certain markets and writing particular types of stories. If I’ve done my research, I know the audience for the story I’ve written. Do I cater to them or do I worry about entertaining myself first?
If I’ve written a story about a mutant cyborg squirrel, then it will inevitably be compared to every other story about a mutant cyborg squirrel. It’s also in Conversation with all the stories about mutants, cyborgs, and squirrels. What does my story say about all of those subjects? There’s no way I could read every story about these three things, but maybe I’ve read a few of them. Is my story in response to one of them? Whether I like it or not, my augmented super-squirrel (let’s call him Acorn-X) does not exist in a vacuum.
Where does my story about Acorn-X**** stand in relation to the times I live in? Maybe he’s a response to all the crazy news I’m reading on the internet about rat brains controlling Predator drones. Or some kind of statement on ethical treatment of animals. Maybe I just like squirrels.
This is not a post with answers. I’m still wondering how much of this stuff to consider when I’m writing a story. It’s very possible I’m overthinking it. I’m the kind of writer who sits down with a character or situation in mind and just starts to write until something happens. This is not a method for everyone. I know writers who are so compelled by issues that they must write stories in response. That’s fine too. But most of these Conversations happen outside my control. I feel like I need to satisfy myself first.
Who are you in Conversation with?
Me and the rest of the Inkpunks, I hope. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
* With a capital “C”
** For the record, neither was my friend. We both agreed that literary fiction could be in just as much of an echo-chamber as any other type of fiction.
*** still not a post about dialogue.
**** not actually a story I’m writing.