WRITING IS LIKE DEATH-BY-ALIEN. (No, seriously. Let me ’splain.)

Originally a guest post for Classy Cat Books but got lost in some kind of site-war shuffle, I dunno.

 

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I was asked to talk to you today about writing and what I enjoy most about it. Which seemed at first like it would be easy, but you know how that goes. The answers are always easy until you start trying to articulate them. So let me talk to you first about Story. Because it matters, and in the end, it actually is the answer.

Right, so, I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big, hokey, non-picky fan of creature-features. Give me absurd monsters tearing up NYC or Tokyo, and if it’s enough fun, I’ll even look past a zipper up the back. Of course, it’s always better when you don’t see the zipper up the back, when you can kind of sink yourself into an outlandish world and let it vicariously scare the bejabbers out of you. So, while I can have a whole lot of fun with the old Godzilla Meets Mothra-type movies, I do actually prefer the more well-done Alien.

The 1982 version of The Thing has always been one of my all-time favorites. I even got the director’s cut DVD when it became available a few years back. I was surprised by how well the FX held up; they’re a bit dated, to be sure, and sometimes you can definitely see the “zipper” (the bit with the head didn’t hold up too well, though the punchline directly following still makes me fall on the floor), but all in all, the quality of the acting and the story more than made up for any less-than-thrilling visuals.

Now, there’s a point here, and I’m coming to it.

Not too long ago, I read the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart), upon which The Thing is based. Now, there are very few stories that are better for me on the screen than on the page; I almost always like the book better. So, I was fully prepared to be blown away by the book. I mean, if I loved the movie that much, the book would be like Manna from Heaven, right?

Er… Not so much.

The book actually sucked. I mean sucked.

The writing style was horrendous, the grammar atrocious, and the dialogue… Oy. Anyone who has ever complained about The Council of Elrond and its info-dump-through-dialogue exposition in LOTR would have a complete cow over this one. It was really and truly awful. And I really wanted to like it.

And it made me think about what makes a good story. Because regardless of crappy writing, the story itself was still good. I mean, I knew the story, have watched the movie times uncounted, and the movie had followed the essence of the book almost to the letter. And as poorly as the story was written, and even though it was telling me nothing new, I was still compelled to keep reading it. I finished the thing, and it really did suck.

I can’t be the only person who was less than impressed with the writing; plenty of people must have thought the same when it was first published in 1938 in the pulp magazine Astounding Stories, and yet it was still recognized in 1973 as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America and published in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. And the thing is, I read that and part of me boggled (omg, the writing was crapcrapcrap, did you people not notice?), and yet another part of me was fist-pumping, because it’s not just a good story—it’s a bloody great story, crappy writing be damned.

So I have to wonder about these things—how such a fantastic (by all definitions of the word), creative story could be brought to the page by someone who didn’t really have the talent to tell it, and yet he did tell it and obviously effectively. How the story was bigger than its “vessel,” even while it was being conceived. How talent, in this case, almost seems to be a side note, because in the end, it really didn’t make a whole lot of difference in the survival of the story itself—it made itself real, gave itself form and life and entwined itself fully into the zeitgeist. It found a way to be told, and even though it was told poorly, it found a way to supersede its humble beginnings—enough so that a screenwriter created a world for it and a director envisioned that world and populated it with people: actors who helped the audience to believe for a little while that those people were as real as that story. (And this isn’t even counting the godawful 1951 version. Talk about zippers!)

It just amazes me, the organicness of Story. I am unabashedly enthralled that there are these sentient things in the ether that choose an author and demand that author speak for them. And it doesn’t really seem to matter that one author could tell that same story in a more grammatically correct way or conform to the basics of good writing better than another, because perhaps that “better author” is not the one who should be telling that story: perhaps that “better author” would not tell that story in a way that would capture the masses and make them pay attention; perhaps—well, almost certainly, actually—in the hands of that “better author,” that story would not be the same, and perhaps that difference would mean the very death of that story.

I admit that I have a hard time reconciling all this with my great love of and my enormous respect for good writing. Because there really is nothing that can take me away so well as having a really good story coupled with really good writing. I have always known that I will sometimes read a story that doesn’t do much for me, just for the pleasure of sinking into a talented author’s words; and now I know I will look past less-than-stellar writing, just for the thrill of the Story.

I think the difference is that, though you can be born with innate talent for writing, to get really good, you have to work at it; a Story just is. I really do believe that an author can choose a story, but a Story must choose its author.

It’s not unlike The Thing itself—analyzing a selection of hosts and choosing the one that suits it best, springing itself on us all unaware, throwing us down, getting into our blood, taking us over, making us thrash and snarl until it takes its complete form, and then fighting tooth and nail for its own survival if it has to. And in the end, changing us irrevocably, for no other reason than that it is its nature.

That’s what I love about writing. The almost mystic selection of an author by a Story. The absolute imperative of it. The need when something really grabs you by the throat and demands to be told. You gotta respect something like that. And man oh man, when it jumps you, you gotta pay attention.

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