Michaeline: Crazy stories

Now here’s an example of structure combined with crazy — leading to an incredible body in motion. Strandbeest by Michael Frey, image via Wikimedia

We love structure and craft here on Eight Ladies – combined, we’ve spent thousands of hours on classes, and maybe tens of thousands reading about how to write, and listening to podcasts. Structure is important, and it makes a book great.

But . . . it’s not the only tool in the toolbox. There’s that big, blasted sword of Crazy that only shows up in this dimension when it wants to, and can disappear nearly as fast. It’s also only visible to certain readers, so whoever wishes to wield the sword of Crazy had better have a thick skin or numb ears: a lot of people are going to be telling the wielder that s/he is . . . well, crazy.

Crazy sometimes carries the day, though. I love Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – adored them as a teen and imprinted on them, and even read them as an adult and still loved them!

Adams had a gift for funny ideas, and was skilled at winding them up and letting them run into each other at full speed. Structure was more hit and miss – he was more like a jerry-rigger than an architect of literature. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has not just one, but multiple prologues. The climaxes seem to come regularly, but not in any particular order. And the dangling threads? Well, apparently that’s why this trilogy needed four sequels instead of the usual two.

Still – look at Adams’ impact on culture. Anyone in the English-speaking world who has passed the grand age of 42 knows they have been initiated into the secret club of Life, the Universe and Everything. I stock up on towels, knowing that a hoopy frood always knows where hers is. And sometimes, a giant but soothing DON’T PANIC floats through my mind, and makes me feel better. I am not alone in the universe.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld series, managed to combine the wild invention with a more traditional story-telling structure. And in my mind, there’s absolutely no doubt that Pratchett has surpassed his master. The books are funny and deeply satisfying.

But where would Pratchett be without the crazy? He’d be stuck with an empty structure. In the best of all possible worlds, we produce high-quality amounts of both crazy and structure. But, if structure is interfering with Finishing the Book . . . maybe the obvious choice to go for the crazy.

What do you think? What’s the craziest book you’ve ever read (with or without structure)?

(I think that I will never see anything as crazy and as rigorous as Theo Jansen’s Strandbeesten. Enjoy! [Strandbeest Evolution 2017])

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Crazy stories

  1. Love the Strandbeests, Michaeline, thank you!

    I love, love, love Pratchett and Adams. I think Pratchett’s story structure was much stronger in the later Discworld books–some of the early ones are a triumph of jokes over plot (I love them anyway). And did you know Douglas Adams also wrote a book and made a TV series with the naturalist Mark Carwardine called Last Chance To See, about near-extinct species. I think it may be my favorite Adams book, and that’s saying something.

    I’m going to have to think about crazy books (will pop back if/when inspiration strikes). You immediately made me think of Picasso. Check out his early works and his sketchbooks. It’s awe-inspiring to see how much traditional technique underpins those crazy surrealist people. And that made me think about Gaudi (search images for Parc Guell or La Pedrera, Barcelona, and of course the Sagrada Familia–commenced building in 1882, now almost finished, I think). Which made me want to hop on a plane and head for Barcelona, or at least the nearest tapas bar.

    Oh–and what about Dale Chihuly’s glassworks? So much craft, discipline and inspiration,resulting in such wonderfully crazy shapes and gorgeous colors. I love his exhibitions. If you don’t know his work, google ‘Chihuly images’ and prepare to be wowed.

    • (-: I didn’t know that about Douglas Adams. I will have to look for the book, Last Chance to See!

      I was amazed, too, when I saw early Picasso. “Wow,” said my very-much-younger-self, “He really can draw. All that is choice.” Although how much of it is letting loose? Sometimes I think the only real choices we have are in the second draft, when we are pruning.

      Another thing about Picasso that amazed me is when I saw some of his “crazy” Cubist portraits next to photographs of the real people he drew. You can clearly recognize those people! It’s not just some sort of organic crystallization coming from nothing. It’s got a matrix based on real life proportions. I will have to think about that a little bit.

      I know a tiny bit about Chihuly, but it sounds like a great Sunday morning project to Google Image him with a nice cup of tea.

      One of the old chestnuts in the business is that you have to know the rules in order to break them. And, if you are going to break the rules, break ’em hard. I feel like feeding time is over; it’s time to produce for a spell. Later, I can come back to craft and structure and study, but right now, it feels dreadfully tight and restrictive — well, not quite that. The anticipation of having to apply the rules is making me anxious. All the rules are right there in the rule box, ready to be applied whenever I should need them.

  2. I admire wild things when others do them, but I am not a wild and structureless free person myself. I think I’m on the whole a very buttoned-down type of writer, which I’m sure is not a good thing. My characters never go off the rails and “take over,” as other writers say theirs do. My characters just are who they are, and every word I put down is a choice I make that I hope reveals most clearly who they are. Which is not to say I don’t revise like a madwoman. But nothing in my manuscripts goes from “wild” to “structured.” It just goes from “structured” to “more structured.” Which, you know, is not much of a stretch.

    I love the strandbeests. There was an exhibit in the Bay Area a couple of years ago—so tremendous. Gaudi is fabulous. Chihuly, too. Pratchett, too, although I’ve never read Adams. Dr. Seuss. 🙂 Such rich imaginations!

    • (-: Well, there are joys to be had from a button-down mind and a button-down story. But . . . having read your work, I am not quite sure “button-down” is quite the word for it. Poodle skirts, Swedish North Koreans, Elvis impersonators . . . they are all wild and crazy, but internally consistent and consistent in their interactions with other pieces of the story, like fractals.

      I find I have to listen to characters very carefully. On last Wednesday’s writing sprint, even though it is unstructured and allowed to be wild, I had a plan. The young boyfriend, Jeremy, was supposed to run off screaming into the woods. I struggled with that for at least three minutes, because Jeremy didn’t want to go, and nothing was coming up. So, I let Jeremy stay, against my better judgement, and found myself getting a super-villain team assembling itself. The characters knew better than I did what had to go on. (-: Solved a problem in my WIP, too. Three more sprints, and I should have a novella, LOL.

  3. Don’t forget that it was originally a six-episode radio play, and never intended to be published as a book. I remember sitting in the dark at a convention, listening to them with a bunch of other SF fans (one of whom was well over six foot, and wearing a kilt!)

    • Hee-hee! /anne, it sounds like you’ve led the fannish life I’ve always wanted to lead! Oh, to be listening to radio plays with a guy who likes a kilt.

      I’ve heard that, too. Douglas Adams was making it up on the fly, and for whatever reasons, didn’t go back and fix any glaring plot holes and messes. It’s an interesting question. If you got the chance to write an episodic story, would you clean it up drastically before publishing it?

      I mean, sometimes the structure is so fragile that you can’t touch any one thing or else everything else falls down. And, there were so many darlings that could have been killed in Hitchhiker’s Guide, but thank goodness, they weren’t. If everyone else was cool, I’d be so tempted to just let it go, and say, “Well, I’ll do better on my next project.” (-: And of course, I wouldn’t. I’d half-ass it just as much, but with less anxiety simply because I knew I could . . . . I hate killing darlings, and I also have a great deal of trouble fixing “just one little thing” — I generally have to rewrite the whole scene unless it’s a typo. And sometimes even a typo makes me rewrite the whole thing.

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