Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers
Collaborating with MICE: Using Theory as a Creative Partner
In the last four columns we have looked at Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient and examined how it is possible to write flash fiction that depends for its success on Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event. As I wrote these columns, I was reminded of the nervous anxiety that I used to feel when I would read about theories and techniques of writing. On one hand, I would feel excited about the clarity that can arrive with a good theory: Aha! That’s why certain novels begin with the arrival of strangers and end when the strangers leave! They are novels of milieu!
At the same time, I would feel overwhelmed by all the information I was cramming into my head from one theoretical or how-to book after another. A particular story can call for a relationship between characters and setting, can require a mix of characters from fully rounded ones to flat ones to the purely functional characters such as the ficelles of Henry James, characters who exist only because of what another character is going to reveal to them. Is the story that I’m about to write of the sort where I need to invest a lot of words in establishing the setting? Which of my characters are going to be round? Do I need a ficelle? Which point of view is best for this story? Is my narrator central or peripheral?
No wonder I would sometimes wonder if I had enough pure brain power to write fiction. There was so much to think about!
What I learned eventually is that almost no writer thinks about all of these technical matters while writing. Theory and technique percolate into the writer’s work over time, with one small decision after another, not as the result of reading books and memorizing rules.
An idealized writing process works something like this: The writer gets an idea for a story, writes a draft on instinct and caffeine, puts it aside, and then reads it with a cold and critical eye. Seeing that the story is broken, the writer turns analytical and tries to decide if the story fails because — to use one example — it doesn’t have exactly three try-fail cycles in which the protagonist attempts unsuccessfully to solve a problem. If there are only two failed attempts, does the story need a third one? Having used theory to diagnose the story, the writer now attempts another draft, but writes that draft again largely by feel. In this model of how writing works, the writer alternates between instinctive writing and theoretical analysis, never doing both at the same time.
This model is reassuring to writers who get bogged down in theory. It is also a bit over-simplified. In practice, not every writer starts with an idea. Some start writing before they have an idea. Not every writer can put theory out of mind because for some fiction writers theory is the whole purpose for writing a particular story. But in general, the theory offers some good advice: write when you are writing, think about theory when you are considering what you have written, and don’t try too hard to do both things at once.
The model is also over-simplified because it treats theory as something that is applied to a finished draft, but the writer can pause in the writing at any point to consider theory.
There are at least three places where I’m likely to apply a theory such as the MICE quotient. The first is as I have described above. I wrote a story, and I used MICE to ask myself what kind of story it is and whether it is likely to fulfill the reader’s expectations. I can also start with theory, deciding before I know anything else about my story that I’m going to try to write a flash fiction of milieu or character and inventing a place or person interesting enough to carry a story. Finally, I can take the approach of jumping in with no idea at all, writing anything that comes into my head, and assessing this raw material through the categories of Card’s theory.
The teaching intern who is helping with my MFA workshop this term is Nancy Boutin. Nancy just presented the class with an optional exercise, free-writing for fifteen minutes in response to a story prompt of three words. The words were citrus, star, and digging. What I came up with is hardly a story yet. You can go read it here.
How could this exercise be turned into a story of milieu? One possibility is shifting my focus to Junction City and telling the story of this town from the arrival of the railroad in the nineteenth century to the closing of the local station in the twentieth. Or I could tell the story of this particular back yard, the one that keeps seeing citrus trees come and go. Another possibility is to focus on the location where the community theater productions are staged. Is any of these a good idea? Not yet. The railroad’s arrival and departure is the most promising to me since it’s a good fit with the theoretical arrival and departure of a stranger. Perhaps I could tell the story from the railroad’s point of view?
There is a potential mystery in this draft. Why is Miss Hought planting citrus trees? In the draft, I spell this out immediately: she thinks that with climate change, the trees are liable to be able to live in the Willamette Valley one of these years. The story could be structured to reveal this idea only at the end. I don’t think that’s a strong enough idea for even a very short story to stand on, but sometimes a story works because two ideas come together. The narrator has said that he and Miss Hought are both a couple of the odd characters in Junction City. What did he mean by that? What if I give both characters a secret motivation and a revelation that resolves both of their personal mysteries in the last lines? I have no idea at this point what the narrator’s mystery would be, but I like the feel of this idea.
As for character, Miss Hought and the narrator are each interesting. She seems to have some sort of seasonal affective disorder, and he seems committed to enacting her whims. In this case, the character at the heart of the story might be two characters, or the nature of their relationship. What drives each of them? How could I reveal to the reader in 500 words who each of these people is, and make it satisfying?
If an event story is one in which one world order gives way to another, how about telling the story of Miss Hought’s niece, who arrives to take over her ailing aunt’s affairs and dismisses all the people who enable Miss Hought’s eccentricities? The story would begin by evoking those eccentricities (the annual planting of doomed citrus being just one of them), would demonstrate the niece putting a stop to these odd practices, and would finally show the resulting state of Miss Hought, or the other characters, or the neighborhood, or the whole town when the local eccentric is no longer interesting.
I hope my point is clear. Theories of how stories work are useful in more than one way, and any theory represents a new way of getting story ideas and asking, What if?
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About the Author
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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