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The Redness of Red
Welcome to the Hammer Party #6
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
Time is gushing as if from a wound, don’t you think? The first year of Welcome to the Hammer Party is over. It’s been very fulfilling to see people finding my ideas on writing useful, and I’m going to keep this going in one form or another in the new year. I’m considering moving towards a podcasting model next year, under the perhaps foolhardy belief that it will be easier than getting these essays out.
This month I had a chance to sit down with my good friend Blake Howard to talk about the movie JFK, trying to talk more about the film as a film instead of litigating the historical basis of the story. It’s a movie I love and I was glad to be able to chat to the always fun Blake. Check it out, and subscribe to Blake’s Patreon if you haven’t already.
Thoughts on Writing
The Redness of Red - The Concept of Qualia in Fiction
Do Not Break the Dream Part 2
I think what makes this newsletter unique is that I’m uninterested in giving much technical writing advice. I dislike advice like “avoid voice overs” or “don’t write prologues”. You can always find so many exceptions to any technical rule about writing that in the end technical advice mostly boils down to don’t do it shitty. More specific advice mostly needs to be given on a case by case basis, and therefore is pointless in a newsletter like this.
There is one universal rule of storytelling I am comfortable expressing: Do not break the dream. I suspect that essay is going to prove to be central to many future issues of this newsletter, as the concept of the story as transmitted dream, and the related importance of tone/vibes is central to my thinking now, and I believe it is useful for anyone who cares about telling stories.
I want to focus on something I wrote in that essay:
Do not break the dream …
It’s a rule with a million permutations and applications. A good plot twist makes the audience lean forward, drawn even deeper into the story. A bad twist wakes the viewer, forces them to do story math. A well-turned phrase will add to the all-important tone of the work, add subtle pleasure to the reading. A bad (or too flowery) phrase knocks the reader out of the story completely.
I’ve come to think about these millions of decisions, both conscious and unconscious, that a writer makes as the qualia of the piece.
Qualia is defined as the subjective experience of sensing something - oftentimes phrased as the redness of red. It’s the part of the sensory experience that is unmeasurable and essentially undefinable in any rational sense, and is one of the ideas that must be dealt with in any theory of consciousness.
The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so. - Schrodinger
In my definition, the qualia of a story is created by every little single choice that an artist makes consciously or unconsciously, which will interact with the audience’s brain to form the dream. It is all the millions of things that combine to create the ultimately indescribable Goodfellas-ness of Goodfellas, the Bell Jar-ness of The Bell Jar. Critics can try and define the qualia of a piece, but they must fail, as a poet must fail trying to express the redness of red. In the end it can only ever be experienced.
As I’m working towards a unified theory of my creative process, I’ve come to focus on the connection between the smallest and largest units - the qualia and the dream. (The amorphous and popular concept of vibes is the middle ground of these two concepts: the difference between the vibe of something and the total dream is that a vibe can be experienced in any given moment of a piece - but the dream is the totality of the piece, all of the qualia from those first liminal space of the first pages or first act to the very last moment.)
This may all seem abstract and wanky. But I believe it is terribly important. Focusing on how your qualia combine to create a dream in your audience is the best way to make your story a complete and enthralling work of art.
It just means keeping some basic principals in mind as you work:
There are obvious things that help form the distinct and ineffable qualia of a piece. In fiction: word choice, style, plot, genre. In film: mise-en-scene, score, casting. But there is more to it than that. These choices exist at every level of story, from microchoices to 30,000-foot perspective, all of which must exist in some sort of harmony. Length and pace, the mechanics of plot or the absence thereof, allegiance to and undercutting of genres tropes, font choices, lens choices, etc. all combine to create something that is totally unique and uniquely total.
As the qualia of your piece accumulate, it gets easier and easier to know what is or isn’t the story. And if you do your job correctly, it will be easy for someone who is not you to know as well. You don’t have to be a pianist to know when a musician has stuck a false note. The discordance is obvious, almost physically so. Once you have introduced the audience to the dream in that liminal space of the first act (or first pages or whatever), they will know when you break it. This doesn’t mean you can’t change up the tone or throw a curveball - it just means you have to see that change as part of the qualia.
People who flaunt these rules (big, dream-shattering meta-moves and the like) may produce something that is intellectually satisfying, but of course the intellectual level is the shallowest level from which to appreciate art. (And experimental meta-films are perfectly capable of both being intellectually interesting and also falling under my rules of an unbroken dream - the amazing short films of Peter Tcherkassky for instance). Dream-states happen at a deeper level than the intellect.
Ride the tiger who brought you.
If you are working in collaboration with your deepest self, a lot of this will come naturally and without much conscious thought. Work in the genre that you are drawn to work in. Write about the things that already obsess you. Try to fold in enough disparate parts of yourself so that your subconscious correctly supplies the correct qualia without you having to think about it too much in an intellectual way.
Work the way that lets you produce the best work. Don’t listen to other people or mindlessly follow whatever capitalist/puritan productivity mantras people throw at you. I personally like to work first thing in the morning before the real world has its hold on me, but that’s just personal preference. Do what works and only that.
Create a spirit board.
Spirit boards are a great way of creating a unique set of influences that will help you create a unique set of qualia in your work. Write your spirit board helps you form and create a unique tone that should aid you in selecting and deploying the qualia. Select a broad array of influences from may different forms of art. Revise it as needed. Review it often enough that it stays in your mind, but not so often that your eyes glaze over when you look at it.
Induce states in yourself to more successfully transmit states.
Once you’ve created your spirit board, start marinating in the material you referenced. Make a playlist that evokes the tone/tones you want (I’ve included my playlist for my new project below). Read little sips of books right before you start your writing day. If you can achieve the desired state in yourself, it will be that much easier to transmit that state in others.
Refill the tank. Read and watch and listen to the best things you know of that evoke the mood in you that you want to be a part of your piece. (Don’t read everything in your genre. Read the best things - for your definition of best.) Challenge yourself, but don’t force yourself too much to engage with material that doesn’t engage with you.
Trust the you inside you who knows what this is.
If you have properly educated yourself and created the right state for yourself, you don’t have to think a lot about this stuff in the drafting process. Your brain is holding everything it needs and it knows what you’re trying to do. Get out of its way, don’t overthink. Just do the things that feel correct.
Stay loyal to stories.
Stories don’t need justification to exist. The sharing of story/dreams is a noble end unto itself, and the creation of that dream in your audience should be your only goal. Any commercial or political purposes should take a backseat. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a theme or explore things that are important to you. If you want to transmit your ideas to people, making those ideas serve the story - being aware of them as part of the qualia of the piece -will be more effective than trying to make the story serve your ideas. Stories are awful vehicles for carrying loads; they collapse under them very quickly.
You shouldn’t produce something purely for the market, but you also shouldn’t produce something solely for yourself, refusing to shape your work into something that is sharable - that’s masturbatory, and storytelling is communal. Taking people out of their lives and into a story is the only thing you should be trying to do. Being aware of your work as a unique set of qualia can help keep you focused on doing the only job that matters.
Do not break the dream.
The ultimate problem of storytelling is that you are trying to achieve an objective goal of inducing a subjective state in someone else.
You will lose more times than you win. You cannot create a piece that will work for everyone - or even most people. That’s the bad news. The good news is, that’s not the goal. If you follow these rules, your work will find its audience, and your story will enthrall them, and that’s the whole ballgame right there.
And I think that’s beautiful.
Refilling the Tank
The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
I had the real pleasure of taking a course this month from the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. The one I took was on the Death Drive and Freud with Patrick Blanchfield, and involved a lot of heavy reading on death, fascism, perversion and drives. I found it fascinating and mindbending and obviously applicable to my work. Their course list ought to have something that interests you.
The Beast of Los Angeles playlist
As mentioned above, this is the playlist I’m building and listening to as I work on my next novel. Electronic, propulsive and anxious writing music to fuel a jagged modern thriller.
Murder Ballad of the Month
Ween is the band of my drug-soaked youth, a band I’ve seen dozens of times in at least seven states over the past twenty years. Object is from their final album, and is a pretty pure example of the way they absorb and reproduce genres at will. It’s a pretty straight-forward tale of sociopathic desire which sounds like nothing else in their catalog (and therefore sounds exactly like their catalog).
Okay, party’s over.