Thursday, December 15, 2016

C. L. Moore on Shambleau

I have a long interest in how writers construct their stories.  It is one thing to listen to an academic or critic discuss the art of writing.  But to hear from the writer herself, in this case Catherine "C. L." Moore, is a special treat.

The following passage by C. L. Moore assumes that you have read her story "Shambleau", published in Weird Tales in 1933 and frequently reprinted elsewhere. Fortunately, for those who haven't, the collection of the same name is January's Puppy of the Month at the Puppy of the Month Book Club, so there is a chance to soon catch up.  And, if the passage wasn't so long, I might have saved it for an entry at that blog.  But, Fair Use being as muddy as it is, I would rather not risk disrupting a group blog if I have made a mistake.  Besides, now I can indulge in a little commentary.

Moore's character-based approach fills in some of the gaps of Dent's master plot formula.  Dent relies on action, external events, and the hero's skill to drive the plot forward.  Moore still uses action, but also uses contrasts of character to not only drive the plot, but also to populate her stories and make her characters stand apart from each other. And from character comes motivations, which provide internal drivers for the plot as opposed to external events.

Also, she states that to be a good writer, you must be an avid reader.  This echoes advice given later by C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, and others.

From "Afterward: On 'Shambleau' and Others," found in The Best of C. L. Moore:
Midway down that yellow page I began fragments remembered from sophomore English at the university. All the choices were made at random. Keats, Browning, Byron— you name it. In the middle of this exercise a line from a poem (by William Morris?) worked itself to the front and I discovered myself typing something about a “red, running figure.” I looked at it a while, my mind a perfect blank, and then shifted mental gears without even adding punctuation to mark the spot, swinging with idiot confidence into the first lines of the story which ended up as “Shambleau.” 
The red, running figure in the poem had been a young witch pursued by soldiers and townspeople in some medieval village. In my story they had perfectly sensible reasons for killing her as soon as possible. 
I sat at the typewriter and heard distant bells ringing somewhere on the backstairs of my mind. The situation was wide open, and with no conscious mental processes whatever I surrendered myself to it and the typewriter. (This is among life’s most luxurious moments— giving the story its head and just keep your fingers moving. They know where they’re going.) 
Unfortunately, you can’t expect your unconscious to carry on for very long unaided. So far I have only promised to reveal where the ideas come from, not the story itself. So stay with me, pay close attention, and I’ll see what I can do. 
First, you have to read a great deal of the works you enjoy most. Much of it will be useless. But the trusty unconscious can be relied on to make lots of unseen notes, just in case. Mine did not fail me. 
I couldn’t let my character Shambleau go on running forever, could I? I had the whole scene in hand now— medieval setting, red, running figure, pursuing soldiers and citizens. But then what? 
Obviously she was going to need help— also a foil to set her off effectively and to give the story a shape it didn’t yet have. So Northwest Smith strolled onstage without even a glance my way, perfectly sure of what he was going to do about this. (Northwest Smith? Well, once I had typed a letter to an N. W. Smith, and the name lingered tantalizingly in my mind, waiting for this moment. What would a man named Northwest Smith look like? Be like? Occupy himself with? I soon found out.) 
To complete the triumvirate of lead characters to whom my typewriter introduced me that day long ago, a companion and foil for Smith slouched carelessly into view, thirsting for drink and women. His name was Yarol, and I cannot conceal from you that it is an anagram from the letters in the name of the typewriter I was using. But I like it anyhow.
Here we return to my conviction that you must read enough, enjoy it enough, to absorb unconsciously the structure of the fiction you like best. In this case Shambleau needed help urgently. There wasn’t any yet. The story required a backbone strong enough to support the plot, and Northwest Smith arrived on cue. For contrast with the seemingly helpless fugitive, “Shambleau” needed a strong, tall, romantically steely-eyed male. I think it was along about here my mind got devious and I realized that after his use as a defender was over she might just possibly spring her trap and destroy him. You will note that this gave my still unfledged plot a way to go after the rescue.
So Smith himself was going to need help. Preferably from someone as antithetical to Smith as Smith was to Shambleau. (Who needs two Northwest Smiths?)
Therefore, Yarol. 
And that’s how it all began.
Update:  This quote from the same article further illustrates her approach to writing.
All started out with some wild but malleable idea for which I had to choose a lead character strong enough to play the action against, which is what gives a story form.

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