Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dawkins (a little), MRI's, and Chevy Chase

My post tonight will only touch on my Dawkins series. I forgot, chapter three is the "Me thinks it is like a weasel" and "biomorph" chapter. I'll leave it up to the guys with letters behind their names to tackle this chapter. Not that it's difficult--it's just over-done. I mean, duh, using a computer program to "simulate" cumulative selection. That's kind of like following a map to simulate random wandering. You know, like a geocacher "stumbling" upon their destination, as if the GPS was some sort of unseeing force of nature.

The main thing is, the chapter is Dawkins patting himself on the back for writing some cutesy little program that made line drawings resembling space aliens and insects. Just like the bat sonar chapter, it really has nothing to do with the "story." He's supposed to be showing how genes were first formed and how they mutate and carry on those changes. Instead, he's showing how you can program something to take baby steps in the right, pre-set direction and then saying how cool it is that life did that all on its own.

In fiction, the author is supposed to "show, not tell." That means the reader should be able to look at the actions and surmise what the message is. Saying "he was angry" is telling. Saying "he stormed into the room and slammed the door behind him" is showing. The thing is, the author has to have the actions match the message. You can't say "he stormed into the room" and proceed to tell the reader what a cheerful guy he really is at that moment, underneath it all. Either one is true or the other, but not both. Dawkins spends most of the first three chapters of The Blind Watchmaker showing us over and over the evidence for design, but then tells us it's chance, underneath it all.

So, on to other topics.

Last night, I was reminded of an analogy that I had been wanting to write out, but had no place to write it. I've only had my website and blog going for a couple of months and got a bit side-tracked with the set-up and book reviews that I forgot all about this great illustration I'd come up with!

Here it is:

In the movies and on TV, writers are always depicted as sitting in front of their computers (or as in one of my fave movies, Funny Farm, with Chevy Chase sitting in front of a type writer--remember those? Remember him?), starting with chapter one, and writing the book page by page until they reach "The End."

That is like an MRI. For the medically challenged, an MRI takes a series of pictures of a section of your body, sort of like x-rays, in cross-section starting at one point and moving inch by inch to the other end. If you made a three dimensional model of this, which the people who created the "Bodies" display actually did, it would look kind of like a mannequin who'd been pushed through a giant egg slicer. Only the slices would be paper thin.

The thing is, you would see bits and pieces of all sorts of different tissue in each slice. A slice that came from chest level would have sections of heart, lungs, ribs, major blood vessels, the spinal column. Stack the slices in the right order and you get a whole person.

This is how you read a book--getting bits and pieces of several different characters and plot elements at once, that all come together in the end. We kind of start at the top, and work our way down, page by page (slice by slice), until we reach "The End." And we can then see the story as a whole.

But writing doesn't happen that way. At least, I could say with some certainty, for the vast majority of us. With most writing it is more like those kid's books that have the clear sheets that illustrate the human body. You know, the back page is the skeleton, and then you lay down a clear sheet that has nerves on it, or blood vessels, then a certain set of internal organs, and then a different set, and keep layering until you have all the muscles and fat tissue, and then finally the skin.

Writing a good, solid novel means starting with the bones. The skeleton is the structure, the plot outline. The organs are the characters. Each is very individual, fully formed in his or her own sense, and each serves a distinct purpose. The main characters would be the heart, lungs, etc. But minor characters are important too, and should be treated as complete, fully-functioning organs. And of course they interact and are dependent upon each other. Muscle is the dialogue and action, and needs to be smooth and strong. Trim the fat, of course. And skin is the final polishing that should only be done when all the insides are present and accounted for, and in working order!

I wish someone had told me that a long time ago. I was at one time convinced all writers were like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm and since I could never do that, I scrapped the idea of writing for many years. I watched the movie over and over, though, secretly wishing I were the wife in the story--the one who wrote the children's book in her spare time, having never been an aspiring writer for a moment prior to her "inspiration." I dreamed that one day I'd be hit out of the blue and just start writing. Well, that actually did kind of happen, but by the time it did, I had realized how unrealistic my ideas were regarding writing. I guess I just had not been at the right time of my life before. And now I am :).


Anonymous said...

When I think of "writers" in movies or tv, I think of Jack Nicholson in the Shining. Day after day of nnnnnnnnnnnnnn ttttttttttttttttt until he finally goes CRAZY, and tries to kill his family...

Thank God you haven't experienced writers block YET! haha

Ok, you wanted my comment! ;-) Brenda

Kat Heckenbach said...

Well, that's because he hadn't read my analogy and he wasn't doing it right...hee, hee. I mean, Chevy Chase had writer's block too, and went crazy and tried to kill the mailman in Funny Farm.

See, I'm providing therapy here. Saving the lives of our families and mail carriers. :) Kat

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, therapists make upwards of $80 an hour...what does it work out to that writers make per hour...??? Brenda

Kat Heckenbach said...

Oh, now you're getting into another reason writers go crazy....


Anonymous said...

I like the analogy- putting down layers until the tale is complete. I always thought of writing as a linear action-chapter one, then two, then three and on until the end. Now after several years of exposure to the process, I realize it is a build up process, one layer at a time.

Anonymous said...

I like the analogy- putting down layers until the tale is complete. I always thought the process was linear- chapter one, then two, then three and on until the end. After several years exposure to the process of writing, I now realize it IS a layering dwon until the tale is complete and fully fleshed.