- Start Reading
- Under the Influence
- Take Part
I’ve finally got my draft thesis introduction into my supervisors, so before they ask me to start on the first chapter, here’s the first in that series of reflections I promised on the three major aspects of blog fiction. First, epistolary, or writing as if the character is writing a document.
There are differences between writing in the first person and writing in character, which I’ve gone into before. Writing straight from a character’s thoughts is very different from writing what a character would write when deliberately filtering their thoughts for an audience. What I haven’t gone into are the differences between writing in character for a novel that will be edited and published complete, and writing in character in real-time, on the fly.
Of course, I did have the vast bulk of the blog posts for BI pre-written, but there was a surprising amount that came up as the story and its narrative time unfolded. As well as responding to comments (which I’ll cover in more detail in the Interaction part of this series) I did a lot more editing and re-writing of the entries along the way than I thought I would, and even put in a few new ones at very short notice, including Elaine going home, and Ash getting embroiled in Liverpool’s organisational politics.
Most of these additions came about because the real-time posting was allowing me to think as the characters in real-time, rather than that elastic sense of narrative time in traditionally-structured fiction in which a sentence can span a second or a century. When I wrote the entries originally it was more like writing a novel. I needed to get all the characters’ stories to a pre-determined point of convergence that would trigger the denouement (Jack spilling the beans, Mei returning to sort him out, all the characters responding to Mei’s return and rejection of the blog community by finding paths that ultimately led to their own exit). If you’re reading or publishing a story all in one go, this seems to make sense. Each character explains how they came to their realisation and then makes their exit, one after the other, no messing. But once it was happening in real-time I noticed discrepancies that are a little hard to define. In order for Mei and Jack to have time for the experiences and realisations they needed to reach, it felt like Elaine and Ash would both have been waiting too long in silence to suddenly come to their realisations at the same time. They each needed an extra push, and an extra two or three entries to get from the one state to the other. With Mei and Jack, it made sense that they’d each been through a lot that we hadn’t heard about and were bringing it all up at once. Elaine and Ash’s journeys needed to have more stops along the way.
This was a bit of a scary realisation, since writing under pressure to deadlines has never been my strongest suit (as my supervisors will verify). But knowing what realisations they needed to come to, and feeling the characters’ state of mind in real-time, helped me to know what had to happen, and how they had to respond. Those entries came more easily than much of the preparation, and looking back over them I’m happier with that work than with much of the more edited and polished material. Elaine’s trip home, especially, surprised me by coming into my head almost fully formed, with Elaine’s contradictions – the bitterness in her humour, the vulnerability in her strength – coming across more readily than ever before.
Was this because I’d come to understand and know Elaine better over ten months of posting to her blog? It’s difficult to say. Obviously I thought I knew her from the beginning. I’d prepared each character’s voice thoroughly, filling in memes and quizzes for them, asking every question I could think of about their personal histories and testing their responses to difficult situations. Now I look back on it, perhaps the reason I enjoyed writing Elaine so much was that her answers to these questions came so easily. She’d say what was on her mind without hesitation, and it would make me laugh. While the others would have to think about it and try to work out a solution to an impossible problem, Elaine would make a spontaneous decision and stand by it. She’d even point out that it was only a meme, and it didn’t matter what she said – I couldn’t hold her to it. Maybe that’s why it took until we were well into the story for me to really get under her skin. I don’t think she took my initial questioning very seriously. I think she had to actually be in those impossible situations before either of us knew how she’d really respond. I’d decided what actions she’d take, but I didn’t understand the effect they’d have on her until they were well underway.
This sense of the characters as independent entities isn’t exclusive to blog fiction writers. A lot of writers feel their characters as present during the writing process, and even talk to them (no, really, it’s not just me – in In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker talks about having conversations with Shug and Celie while she was writing The Color Purple). You can hardly expect a reader to believe in your creations if you can’t manage it yourself. What’s different with blog fiction is the sense of time you share with the characters. Had I written Bad Influences as a novel, I might have skipped over weeks or even months of each character’s story in a single sentence, and then summarised how they felt about that time. When I was posting, I didn’t get to skip those weeks, I lived them. Not in the same way the characters did, obviously, but since they were commenting on other blogs and answering comments between their own posts, I could hardly forget how things were going for them. In blog fiction, you don’t just interrogate your character’s feelings every time they do something interesting, you take that journey with them, you ask about their state of mind and their hopes and fears and small frustrations and triumphs every day, even when they’re not posting anything. Blogs take place in the moment. They may talk about the past and speculate on the future, but they are grounded in the character’s current and immediate state of mind.
In any fictional medium a writer should know how their characters will begin, how they will end and how they will get there, but it’s only in blog fiction that you get to look at your watch and wonder what’s taking them so long. Elaine spent weeks wandering Canberra before moving on, and in my plan that was that: weeks of wandering, then moving on. But as those weeks went on, and I felt them stretching out, too long to ignore the insistent “What now? Where next?” that had followed her around since she left the store, and I began to wonder what she was waiting for, what was left here for her, and I asked her: “Where do you really want to go, right now?” and she wouldn’t admit it at first (she hates sentimentality) but of course she wanted to go home, one last time. She had to go home before she could move on. Wouldn’t anybody? How could you wander the streets of your own city for weeks and not even think about it? That’s what the real-time epistolary element of blog fiction brings to the writing process: an awareness of when something unplanned is necessary, of when a character’s frame of mind has to drive the plot in a certain direction, not in the current chapter or paragraph or at a critical juncture between this speculation and that revelation, or about a page before the denouement, but now, today, in this moment of contemplation, while the power and the connection lasts. That immediacy, that sense of the story moving on second by second whether you write it or not, is something only found in improvisational theatre, role-playing and blog fiction.