Sunday, September 24, 2017

Q&A: Generating Plot Points From Painting Titles

Why do the Kim sections have Dali painting titles instead of numbers? Or, is it true you auto-generated an entire relationship based on Dali paintings?

There are a whole series of funny twists and turns here. When I first dreamed up Dale Martin, I wanted a character who was often misunderstood, and decided it needed to be as such a fundamental level he didn't even get to keep his name. (Some of this may be personal projection. Aaron Rath is a pen name; my real name isn't a secret, I just opted not to use it because it confuses people. My first name is a common last name and my last name is a common girl's first name. I'm forever flipped backwards, and into the wrong gender.) I'm honestly confused now why I picked Dale Martin -> Martin Dali, since it's not even a proper spoonerism, which it ought to have been to fit the book's theme.

At that time, I knew nothing about Dali, other than melting clocks from The Persistence of Memory posters. But if there's one thing I'm good for, it's that after latching on to a joke, no matter how offhand, I will then pursue it tenaciously. So I started buying books of Dali collections, and read a couple of biographies, until it became a research project that for a year or so took up more time than I spent actually writing, even though for the most part I didn't even have anything in the book about him, except for an "Any relation to the artist?" running joke, and Ginevra's offhand comments when she first meets Martin.

I wanted to work in more, but didn't really have a place for it, until nearly at the end. One of the last sections I wrote was Martin's relationship with Kim. (In the original version, Kim was concentrated into one chapter, all of it supposed to be a unified theme, rather than mixed in chronologically with the rest of junior year, the way it is now.) I kept putting it off in part because at age 23 I still hadn't had a significant relationship and felt I didn't have much insight into imagining one for Martin, and beyond that I simply didn't have any ideas for how it would rise and fall.

Finally, one day while flipping through one of my Dali books, I noticed the title of one, The Great Masturbator. I laughed to myself, thinking he had a knack for really catchy titles, and thought it might almost make for a great story. Well, why not use it for myself? If there's a great masturbator, obviously that has to be Martin. Why's he masturbating so much? Again, obviously, it's because he's trying to get the relationship started, but something isn't working when it comes to intimacy. Okay, that's a start.

I flipped through the books, writing down all the other titles that I really loved, or that seemed to fit with a relationship, or were attached to images that I liked. I won't list them all, but some of the favorites included:
  • Paranoiac-Critical Solitude
  • Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds
  • The Unsatisfied Desire - obviously goes with the Great Masturbator
  • The Wounded Bird
  • Metamorphosis of Narcissus
  • Autumnal Cannibalism
  • Sleep
  • Swans Reflecting Elephants - a nice reversal of Narcissus
  • The Persistence of Memory
Those plus a dozen more, all powerful titles. I shuffled them a bit, and started to detect certain themes: desire, struggle, a transformation, a restful peace, then more transition and a wistfulness. If that didn't spell out the full course of a relationship, nothing did. Given that auto-generated structure, actually filling in the details after that went really quickly. It was universally recognized as the strongest chapter of my first draft (and rated as surprisingly realistic, from a number of people who knew I wasn't writing from experience, but who had been there themselves), and in fact when it was over I spent a bunch of time wondering if I'd done it all wrong, because Martin clearly needed to end up with Kim after everything they'd been through. I had to really pump up the subsequent Ginevra chapter to make it convincing why he'd want to pursue her instead.

All of this was long before I thought up section numbers for the rest of the book. During the rewrite where I added them, I debated for a long time whether I should keep the Dali theme in the Kim section or convert them to numbers, too, and ultimately decided if I dropped the Dali titles I'd be cutting out too much of the original vision. So those stayed with Kim, and then that gave me the leeway to add in a few other joke titles (????, the infinity symbol, 3.14159, 2.71828) plus the Greek letters on some other sections, but that's a topic for another entry.

This technique isn't uncommon. You could just as easily generate ideas with a deck of tarot cards, or pull slips of paper out of a hat, or throw a dart at a grid of ideas. I think I've even seen plot spinners. Using Dali paintings seemed like a way to work in a little tribute and reference to the artist whose name I was borrowing.

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