Wednesday, December 05, 2007



A great thing for a writer to have. It's interesting to me (yes, I know my own perversity) that the one thing that prevents most people from becoming writers may be an indispensable part of the Writing Process for those who decorate empty pages with the outpouring of their souls.

Now while it's true that many writers have conquered their fears, for some authors the empty page is the battleground upon which they slay their inner demons, dragons, ogres or wargs (this list is descriptive, not exhaustive: I would hate to be accused of partiality towards any class, or group, or Race, of monsters).

Whether this is because in doing so they hope that the confrontation may help them grok themselves, or grok the fear, or prevent what they are afraid of from coming to pass (a case of fiction preventing fruition...), or simply to defang the serpent, or whether they actually enjoy being afraid, is irrelevant to me. I leave that to another group that is a Half Bubble Off Plumb, the Psychologists. On second thought make that a Full Bubble.

Writers have learned, God defend us, to feed on Fear: the amount of adrenalin is the same whether the person is inhibited or galvanized by it. Every danger presents an opportunity, and blessed is the Writer who can write with the smell of Fear all over the page, bleeding unchecked out of every wounded noun and verb. If the writing keeps you up at night, it will have the same effect on the reader.

In this way we are similar to other adrenalin junkies, the half-pipe skaters and riders, deep-sea divers, parachutists, and inner-city subway commuters. The exhilaration that comes through fear is the fuel for our endeavor - and the attention and interest of the reader. Which do you think is harder: to juggle five balls or three flaming clubs? On a scale of one to ten, juggling three clubs (lit or otherwise) is maybe a four: juggling five balls is an eleven, perhaps a twelve. Try it and see. Now ask yourself, which would you rather watch? Evel Knievel knew that people watched in fascination knowing he might crash, even die. When he did in fact, recently pass away, he died in bed, and caused only a ripple in the news ocean.

Readers know instinctively when a Writer is racing the crumbling cliff's edge. It creates a shared experience of the Fear between Writer and reader, a telepathic empathy, a bond between two intimate strangers.

How and why does this work?

I believe (you are about to be inflicted with an Opinion) this is because of the sheer wonderful intense concentration that fear induces.

Norm Evans, Right Tackle for the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins, when asked about how well the offensive line blocked for Fullback Larry Csonka, confessed that he did so out of sheer terror:
"Larry heads for where the hole is supposed to be. If I'm in the hole, he'll hit me in the back and move both me and the defensive player out of the hole, or he'll run over both of us. I've been hit by Larry in the back, and I never want to have it happen again."

Many athletes and actors understand this, and talk about the jitters that affect them - until they start the game, or play, or scene. The conversion of Fear into concentration is a deadly weapon in the hands of a good Writer. Remembered details stand out crisply in the mind's eye, skin, ears and nasal passages, and pour themselves unaided onto the empty page.

Tom Morrisey told me of an accident he had while rock climbing (another HBOP hobby... Tom also does underwater spelunking, good for TWO Bubbles Off Plumb). He reached for a handhold, slipped, fell over backwards, head down, for about twenty feet, where his rope caught him. As he fell, everything slowed down, and he clearly saw, in the distance, a withered tree with a tombstone standing next to it. Tom even had time to reflect on how ironic a picture this was to a falling climber. Secured by his fellow climber, it took both of them ten minutes to find the tree again.

I wrote in an earlier post of the usefulness of observation to the Writer, and of re-training our dulled senses to record sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, and Fear helps us to concentrate, sharpens the intimate details that can transform a dull piece into a magical telepathic conduit of the Writer's passions, fears, loves, and hates.

So go off and sky dive, or swim with sharks, tell jokes on stage, or more frightening still, delve into the dusky innermost recesses of your own secret Fears, and translate it to the page.

Your Readers will sit up and take notice.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

So you don't like Fantasy?


Some people just don't.

In my experience, most people who don't care for Fantasy (poor benighted souls, like Miss Snark), generally lump the genre into one of two categories.

Either they say 'But it isn't real', by which they usually mean it does not conform to their worldview, or they say 'But it's just escapist', by which they mean it tries to avoid their worldview.

Liberals may attack Fantasy because they find it too 'traditional', while books like Harry Potter come under fire from Conservatives because it contains 'witchcraft'. Both groups fear that Fantasy may influence the reader's imagination adversely - a tacit admission of the power of Fantasy, by the way.

So how can we tell if Fantasy is 'good' or 'bad' (apart from the writing style)? Fantasy, after all, is produced by the writer's imagination, and imagination is a good thing, as I said here.

The 'Realist' style of writers like Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, or Emile Zola is firmly rooted in the naturalistic, materialistic worldview that arose around the turn of the last century: the world of Darwin and Marx (Karl, not Groucho), limited to descriptions and treatments of that which may be seen with physical eyes. But if we deal only with that which is real according to this definition, we perforce leave out much which is unseen, but which many people find gives Meaning to Life - like love, or God, or absolute truth, or a clear conscience. The above-mentioned writers produced works, incidentally (or consequently...), that were full of what most people would call the 'seamy' side of life, consciously amoral and devoid of 'sentimentality'. Their writing reflected their worldview. One can, of course, write 'realistically' without accepting this worldview. Read Dostoevsky.

But was it real?

Or was it a self-conscious attempt on their part to portray what they thought was reality? Those who make assumptions about what is 'real' will always be accused of Begging the Question, or at least get asked The Impertinent Question, i.e. 'Sez Who?'

Secondly, every work of fiction is by definition a work of imagination. The Writer projects not what is or has been, but what he or she thinks would, should, or could be, or woulda/shoulda/coulda been.

So my answer to those who say Fantasy is 'not real' is two-fold: Who Sez your 'realism' is really real? And, even your 'realism' is partly fantasy.

There are two ways also to answer the charge that Fantasy is 'escapist'.

The first is to say, with Bradbury, that Fantasy is not an escape from Reality, but a kind of back-door to it, Perseus looking into the golden shield to slay the Medusa. Those who write 'traditional' Fantasy know that one of the best ways to explore the invisible world, the moral and spiritual universe, is through the judicious use of symbolism. I talked about this briefly here.
Fantasy is not reality, it is a 'profitable invention', to quote Sydney, because it deals with Ideas, with Truth, and Good vs. Evil.

Or we can ask, with Tolkien, The Apathetic Question, i.e, 'So What?'

Who would, Tolkien asks, take issue with a prisoner who tries to escape, or failing to succeed at that, find something else to discuss or meditate on than bars and turnkeys? Yes, one may use Fantasy as an escape from responsibility, and this would count as bad Fantasy, but good Fantasy quickens the imagination, and creates longing for heroes, courage and beauty.

In a Zeitgeist that is naturalistic, materialistic, and amoral, Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Lord of The Rings has re-kindled a generation's longing for something more than the dreary depressing doldrums offered by Charlie and Karl.

So how do I tell good Fantasy from bad?

By the effect it has on the reader.

Does it make vice attractive, scoff at heroes, encourage a vapid existentialism, and teach the reader to ignore the transcendent? Then it's Bad Fantasy, no matter how well written. Sorry, Robert.

Does it inculcate a revulsion against evil, root for protagonists that are virtuous (or become so), foster a delight in beauty, and fertilize the imagination with pregnant symbols of transcendent truth? Then it's Good Fantasy, no matter how badly written. Take heart, Terry.

To those who still don't like Fantasy, I wish you the best. I'll just pick up my pearls and go home.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

And now for Something Completely Different...

Mea Culpa.

Reading over my last several posts, I have come to the conclusion that I may be in mortal danger of Taking Myself Much Too Seriously.

I cannot afford for this to happen, since I would then start writing Literary novels, the thought of which brings on a desperate need for a good dose of Pepto-Bismol.

So today I want to write about some things I really like about Writing. I realize that in doing so I may be revealing more information about myself than I really want to, or indeed more than you, gentle reader, may really want to know, but there we are.

I'm not going to write about great Themes, or having Something To Say, or the Need to Be Relevant (all of which would make great names for rock bands, an idea I stole from Dave Barry). I won't even write about the fact that Fantasy is not an escape from Reality, but a back door to it.

I like - strike that, I love those times when the scene in my head writes itself on my pc screen without conscious intervention on my part, when the screen itself disappears, so that all I see is the scene I'm writing. At such times I almost feel like a conduit, rather than a translator, and the words overflow the banks, burst through the dam, and its all I can do to manage to direct the flow, and I stop only when the stream runs dry. I call this 'being in the Zone', and I have tried, to no avail, to recreate at will those conditions which precipitate the Zone, and other writers that I've talked to confess something similar. This has all the earmarks of addictive behavior, I know. Ask me if I care.

I especially like creating characters that readers fall in love with. Characters that readers discuss with you as if they were real people. I also like, perverse imp that I am, to propose writing death, dismemberment, or humiliating scenes for these characters, just to see the reaction. Some of these suggestions have actually found their way into a WIP, and some may still do so.

I love watching people read my work: will they gasp at just the right moment, or laugh, or cry; will their eyes go all round like blackboard zeros; will I have to call their name twice before they hear me; will they shudder at that scene? If you're not going to write so as to elicit an emotional response, why write at all?

I love to write cliffhanging ends to chapters. Or books. Well, I might as well be honest, I love to write chapter endings that dangle readers over The Black Abyss of Doom. My beta readers usually only get to read a chapter at a time, and their reactions to NOT being able to turn the page and go on have sometimes been priceless. AW told me once, after trying (vainly) to scroll down after a chapter ending: "You did NOT end it THERE! You SO SUCK!" Which of course I took as a compliment of the highest order, and thanked her profusely.

I love being told my novel should be made into a movie. If only the readers that told me this had the ear of Peter Jackson....*sighs*. Current suggestions for actors among my readers: Johnny Depp as Jonas (... most of my betas are female...), Kate Beckinsale as Diane, Daniel Craig as Alex, Drew Barrymore as Liz, and Anthony Hopkins as The Elder. Such a movie would, of course, never be made: too many stars. But it's a great Dream...

And I love drowning my readers in the Dream that is the Story, when they tell me they can see the scene, smell the Nightmares, hear the waves lapping zhoop-zhoop on the powdered sand. I love finding that one vivid concrete detail that puts the reader there, so that they are in the Story, not just reading words on a page.


In reading this, I find I may have escaped being Too Serious only to become Too Full of Myself.

What can I say?

I am a writer.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Introspection, Part 2


You may not want to read this.

That's because I want to post about Introspection now not as a tool, a skill in the craft of Writing, but as a necessary part of the Writer's character. Why, not how.

I said in my last post that we all need to know, as writers, what we are capable of. Some of us are quite capable of finishing a sentence with a preposition, or starting a sentence with a conjunction, or writing sentence fragments. But others aren't. Pubbers, in particular, when they sit down to write something (for a lark, or just slumming), fight with the Watcher at The Gate about everything.

We are capable, for instance, of deluding ourselves into thinking we are the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, except better. Nevermind that the chances of a virgin writer being published nowadays is about the same as being struck by lightning while being eaten by a great White Shark right after winning the Lottery...

This same lust (why not call it what it is?) drives us to think better of the written record of the outpourings of our souls than we ought, and to resent Pubbers, or other writers, attempting to change it. We are like Pilate, who famously said, 'What I have written, I have written,' when the Sanhedrin tried to edit him. Come to think of it, he was right, too.

On the other hand, we (perversely) think nothing of suggesting any number of perfectly obvious changes that should be made to writing shared with us by our fellow writers.

But the green-eyed demon really begins to claw its way out of our chest when we see, or hear of, writers we know getting published, receiving an Award, or Lord defend us, seducing an Agent: we are more than capable of congratulating them to their face while fantasizing about casting them as the villain in our next novel. And we're convincing; after all, we make up stuff all the time, that's what we do...

Sometimes we begin to write in order to become famous, or garner applause, or Awards, or to get Pubbed. We begin to stray from writing what we want to write into writing what we think readers want to read, or worse, what Agents and Editors want to read.

Which leads us back to the how again.

All of these feelings and thoughts are usable. You can place them into the mind and heart of your antagonist, as I mentioned last post. Or you can place them into the mind and heart of your protagonist.

The protag must have a 'Fatal Flaw' after all. Why not give him a couple - of yours? Or a couple from people you know well? This is 'writing what you know' I suppose: If you can describe your own conflicted feelings about something, take those feelings, nurture them well in the compost of your own mind, grow, prune, and water them. And then make your protag conflicted about something, anything, make him want it but feel guilty about that desire, make him hate it (her?) but desire it with all his being. Make him want to do the right thing but fear the consequences more than Death itself.

The antagonist need not provide all, just the primary, conflict: and conflict is the throbbing heart and weeping soul of a thumping good Story.

Of course this is the literary equivalent of streaking. Would you take off all your clothes and run through a public place, say a Mall at lunchtime on the day after Thanksgiving? If you do the kind of introspection I'm writing about, and then use it in a Story, that's what you're doing, except it's your emotions and thoughts on display, not your Adam or Eve costume.

This why some people never become writers. It's also, incidentally, why some people become Pubbers: so they can indulge in literary emotional voyeurism.

So all Writers are emotional exhibitionists to a greater or lesser extent.

How deep are you willing to dive into yourself? What are you willing to dredge up into the blistering heat of public scrutiny? What will your loved ones say? Can you really write about that??? Would it be worse if you did, if you dug up the most painful, pitiful thing about yourself, sweated blood and wrote it into your character - and no one gave a crap?

Remember, I did say you might not want to read this.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Introspection, Part 1

Those supposed to be In The Know say that all the characters a writer creates retain some facet of the writer's character.

I don't know if I agree with this altogether, since most of my characters are amalgams of people I know, or have known. I explain my process of character-building here for those interested.

But for my primary antagonist (Agakari; think Hannibal Lector on steroids and less inhibited), I said that I dug him up from the deepest, darkest parts of my own psyche. This shocked Madame Editor considerably when I told her, since she only knows me now in this angelic manifestation.

But the High Inquisitor is not me. He is, however, someone I might have become (supernatural powers excepted, of course...) had I taken a different path in life. This is true also of my protagonist. Jonas is not me, but I could have become very like him had circumstances been different.

When writing a character, however, the writer must somehow enter into that character's 'mind', must think, must feel, must react, like that character. At least this is how it is for me; if other writers have an alternative process, they can explain it to you in their own blogs. Perhaps this is what Those In The Know mean by some part of the writer being found in the character.

It did, however, present me with a problem. I didn't want to enter the mind of Agakari. I didn't want to mix the bloodlines of men and beasts with magic darker than the Styx, nor Transform men into soulless Gargoyles, nor produce progeny from my nearest living female relative (Warning: the previous sentence contains spoilers for those who may read my novel...).

And so I intended to write my antagonist in a similar way to that employed by Tolkien with Sauron; as a presence that permeates the book, whom one never meets, but is always aware of. As time went on, I realized this could not work, since Jonas had to meet Agakari several times in the book, as did one or two other characters. I had to write from within the antagonist's mind therefore.

So at last we come to the point of this post. I have mentioned Observation, Imagination, and downright Theft as part of a writer's necessary skills, but to this point I have not made much of Introspection.

A writer needs to know what he or she is capable of.

I have very little time with those who believe humanity to be essentially good: all the empirical evidence seems to me against them, apart from the Scriptures I believe in. But we don't, of course, like to think of ourselves as inherently evil, as containing within our own psyche the seeds of our own destruction. It isn't pleasant, it lowers our precious self-esteem, which, of course, is unthinkable in the modern Zeitgeist.

Perhaps it will help to ask you, gentle reader, to remember the last time you wished a fellow human being harm. The Democrats among you need only think of the sitting President, and Republicans of the previous. There, see how easy it is?

Now for the hard part.

Look deep into your heart, and be honest with yourself (be careful; your own heart will deceive you into thinking you are really quite a nice person), and find out what you would really do to someone you truly dislike, if you could get away with it.

Did you scare yourself? If you didn't, you weren't honest enough.

Now take what you found, and give it to your antagonist, and you will have a bloody good villain.

Pun intended.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

To Write, or Not to Write...

That is the question.

I see that it has been some time since I last posted. There are many reasons for this, including the selling of drugs (my profession), writing my second novel (my passion), and Global Warming (a pretension: but, since it is responsible for everything else...).

There are times when every Writer wonders whether to continue writing; when rejection by Pubbers, writer's block, apathy of loved ones, and derision of critics all, or singly, conspire against us.

Some Writers defeat these enemies of setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard by dreams of becoming the next Stephen King (Horrors) J.K. Rowling (Hogwarts) or Dan Brown (Hogwash). Others seek Literary Fame in the Genre that Takes Itself Much Too Seriously to Be Enjoyed. I don't have examples of those types of authors, since I don't read them. This will no doubt make them feel better about the value of the outpourings of their souls, since to them I am a Philistine. I write Fantasy.

I wrote my first novel just to see if I could do it. I had help in the form of a friend, let's call her Madam Editor (she has a Master's in English, so perhaps I should call her Mistress Editor. Or maybe even Editrix...) , to whom I submitted the first half of the first chapter. "Pretend this is a creative writing essay," I said, "and put blue pen marks all over it. Please." She asked where the rest of the chapter was. "Um," I said, "it's not done yet." So she told me to finish the chapter and send it.

I wrote the whole novel that way, waiting for Madame Editor's comments, editing, and then on to the next chapter. After I finished, she did a once-over of the entire MS for me. Yes I do know how incredibly fortunate I am. Because I was getting immediate feedback, I learned to do things instinctively that many writers only learn later: writing with your 'ideal reader' in mind (Madam), self-editing, and how to tease your readers with cliff-hanging chapter endings. The Madam called me after one particularly steep ending. "Is Diane dead, or not?" she asked. "I'm not telling you," I replied. "Ok, then," she said, "You have 48 hours to get the next chapter to me."

So I learned about deadlines under threat of grievous bodily harm, as well.

But mostly I learned that writing is something I must do. It's part of how I now define myself. More than that, it is a compulsion, a need, an addiction. The sequel isn't proceeding as quickly as the first, because the exigencies of Real Life have intervened: I have interrupted the thing not because of Writer's Block, but by choice.

And it's been bloody miserable. My mind refuses to accept that my fingers haven't been typing at the usual rate, or frequency, and it rushes off, carried headlong by the Muse, into all sorts of Dreams of scenes that simply beg to be written down. They pile on top of one another, and side by side, till my head has swollen so large it's difficult to get in and out of doors.

I have had, therefore, to resume my former schedule of writing. It was either that or suffer a violent psychic hemorrhage.

Oh, and I had a conversation with Madame Editor today. She hasn't seen any of the sequel yet, since I refused to put her through the ordeal, and she declined to read it without being able to turn the page after a precipitous chapter ending.

"Did you know that McAllister -" I began. "No," she said. "No, no, no." So I tried again. "He doesn't want to be tempted -" I said. "I'm not listening." she said, which I respected, at least until the next time I tease her with a detail or two about the book.

The Writers among you will know how that conversation made me feel. The rest of you can eat you heart out.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

'Teef from Teef make God Smile'


The title to this installment is a Bahamian proverb referring to the Almighty's derision when theft is perpetrated upon a thief ('teef'). "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, He shall have them in derision" (Psalm 2 v.4, KJV).

The philologists among you may note that we thus make the word 'Teef' do double duty both as verb and noun; a common practice here in The Islands, where speech tends towards ellipsis in most aspects. In fact, all you really need is the present tense; but that's another post, and I digress.

All writers are thieves by nature. We are liars too, but I leave that to yet another post, advance work for which can be found here. We steal scenes from overheard conversations, we gather characters from acquaintances, from dreams we purloin eldritch horrors, and we lift ideas from chance questions.

Or from other writers.

Now in other Arts, this propensity to borrow without asking is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I play the Blues, a musical form that thrives on stolen chops and covers of the Classical Masters (Robert Johnson, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, etc., etc., There was a time in Eric Clapton's life when he wouldn't waste his time with you if you didn't know - and appreciate - Robert Johnson). It is expected that you should be able to play the old standards. The same is true of concert pianists and violinists and cellists, or of opera singers: performance of DWG material is mandatory. Of course the required cover list changes for, say, American Idolaters, but the principle remains the same.

Mind you, while stealing is encouraged, the unwritten rule is: if you steal a lick or riff, you must 'make it yours', i.e. alter it slightly. This gives sufficient homage to the artist from whom you ripped it, while giving listeners the impression that you have a modicum of talent in your own right.

It is a little different for writers, in that we cannot reproduce a given work by a Classy Writer (like Isaac Asimov, or J.R.R. Tolkien). That is plagiarism, which means writers haven't worked out a royalty system that everyone can live with, unlike songwriters, who, quite reasonably, don't mind you reciting or covering their work, once they can get paid for your performance. (On the other hand, if readers ever become able to download novels over Kazaa or Limewire, writers will starve, since, unlike famous musicians, most writers don't make more money than a given Wal-Mart location).

How then, do writers appropriate foodstuffs suitable for Muse provender? I've already posted about the use of observation and imagination, neither of which involves outright theft. They're just creative journalism, where the writer simply reports what he has 'seen'...nothing terrible ever happens to a writer, only wonderful anecdotes. Everything that happens to us is grist for the mill.

But when we choose to add grist that suits our taste, writers imbibe other writers' works, we absorb, masticate, ruminate, digest, ferment, store and then regurgitate. While many of us schedule time to write, how many of us schedule time to read? Different types of reading strengthen different authorial muscles or abilities.

Reading poetry (which should be done every day, according to Bradbury) stimulates the senses and energizes the simile photons so that we can explode metaphorical clusterbomblets on the page in fragrant thunder.

Short stories, comic books, and cartoons develop crystallization of characters and distillation of plot.

Novels build structural stability, elegance, and style, multiply texture, widen and deepen scope, and teach us the intelligent organization and recombination of the primal elements that meet the rapacious hunger of the human heart for Story.

Articles, blogs, and essays, both for the serendipitous resonance of seemingly useless trivia (the judicious use of which may be used to manipulate the reader into suspending disbelief) and for that one improbable, irresistible sensory detail that places the reader there.

So we all steal from each other. I stole the main ideas for this post from Ray Bradbury, John Gardner, and Tom Morrisey.

What will you steal today?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Some Where, Some Time, Pt 2

Where were we?

Oh, yes. I was afflicting you with my Opinion regarding Place, or Setting, in writing.

The spell that Place casts upon the reader is different from that cast by a character; more subtle, the Place exerts its powers on the characters as well as the reader, so that character and reader share the same world. What makes the characters afraid makes the reader afraid, or joyful, or tense, or relaxed.

Setting is marvellous in creating tension, mood, atmosphere. Read the first page or two of Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, or the opening paragraph of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and you will see what I mean. Yes, I know, those are dark examples. It helps to read them at night. Really.

Place can also help to define or delineate or explain a character. Narnia cries out for an Aslan, and the description of Hobbiton tells us much about Samwise Gamgee. And we intuitively understand why both the characters in the tales feel they are places that must be saved; just as we know Barad Dur must be destroyed, along with Giedi Prime.

For Places may be Good, or Evil.

One of the reasons I write speculative fiction is that it is a genre that has perhaps suffered less at the hands of a PostModernist ethos that eviscerates fictional Heroes than some other genres. It is quite acceptable to find Heroes in Fantasy, though in deference to the Zeitgeist they may have more flaws than in the old days. You know, before nylon.

The reason Reepicheep wants to go Further In and Higher Up is that the Place really is worth it; it answers the (often inarticulate) yearning in our breasts for something nobler, richer, purer. The reason Barad Dur must be destroyed is because everything that instinctively feel is Evil thrives there, nourished by a fallen Maia, Gorthaur the Cruel, who perverts all that is good. As he learned from his master Morgoth, so he influenced his pupil Saruman; the Orcs that were made by Morgoth in mockery of the Elves were bred into the Uruk-hai...

The Place, therefore, requires much thought, at least as much thought as the main characters. And they may change over the course of the book, or across a series. Dune comes to mind, since we mentioned Giedi Prime earlier.

Someone once asked Mallory why he climbed Everest. "Because it's there," he said.

That's why we build worlds. To go there, even if 'there' is a place no one has ever been before. Gene Roddenberry understood; where did the Enterprise go?

To create a Place so real, a Setting so captivating, that the reader's primal yearnings and fears are touched, that they want to go and live there, or run away from it as quickly as possible; a Place they almost really feel and touch and taste and smell -

Now that would be Writing.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Some Where, Some Time, Pt 1


A useful thing to have as a Writer, and especially a Writer of speculative fiction.

In I See, Therefore I Write I talked about the utility of observation for the Writer in general; but in Fantasy, and its red-headed stepchild, Science Fiction, scenes occur in places that exist only in the Writer's mind. Now I know that the ability to see places which do not exist in the real world, to smell fragrances which occur only in thought, or to hear sounds of no measurable frequency, is to the world at large, and to Pubbers in particular, yet more proof that Writers are HBOP.

Writers of Mystery, Romance, Chick Lit, Thrillers, etc., place their stories oftentimes in either recognizable or known exotic locales for specific reasons; setting produces its own magnetic or repulsive action on the characters, gives its own pleasures, dangers, and opportunities, and has its own particular colors and flavors.

All this is true for the Writer of Fantasy - except that the Place wherein the story is cocooned is not remembered from real life experience and observation, but from dreams, visions, or a good case of fish poisoning (Never eat any Barracuda over four feet long, or one not caught in the open sea). No, Place in Fantasy has its untimely birth in the fevered brain of the Writer.

And Fantasy writers take this very seriously indeed, as witness the many articles, workshops, and books sections on the Art of World-Building in the genre community. Aside from the thorny theological questions raised in the sheer impudence of building a world from scratch, there are many practical and thematic issues involved, such as race, religion, technology, gender (or lack thereof), and language of the inhabitants; flora, fauna, geology, climate, and geography of the Place; and Special Rules, if there any, in reference to any and all magic, powers, weapons, or the like. The mind reels.

But, as in all good Writing, the setting, world-building, or Place may be as important as the characters, and receive as much attention. For the setting not only draws the reader in, mesmerizes them, and drowns them in the fictional dream, buts casts the same spell upon the characters. Indeed, setting may be regarded in some stories as a character.

Different Places and settings cast different spells upon the readers and characters. Some are Holy; as Joseph Campbell once said, 'Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.' Some are in some sense familiar; woods, deserts, seas. Some are Evil; Gorgoroth, the castle of Jadis, Exham Priory. Some are Home; Hobbiton, the Beavers' Dam, The Burrow. Then there are the special Places, the Places to which journeys are made, and from which we return; but I am getting ahead of myself.

Even Places that seem ordinary and commonplace may produce the most magical effects...

All Places do not affect readers in the same way, either. I talked about spending a night in the Bush two posts ago. Would you like to do that? Could you remain still while crabs crawled across your knees as you sat cross-legged for hours? Or fish all day out of sight of land in swells eight feet deep, in water so blue it makes sapphires envious?

Just as characters in fiction may be ordinary, but archetypical, so setting may be mundane, yet primal.

Once we leave our front door, as Bilbo once remarked, the Road beyond may take us anywhere, anywhere at all, on dangerous journeys fraught with the the most horrific hardships, or delightful voyages filled with tears of happiness. Or both.

Because Fantasy Writing must take us Some Where, and into Some Time. It matters not Where, or When, so long as the story is served by the Where and When. It must take us from our comfortable chair or bed to a mysterious mythical magical Place, where we meet strange and wonderful people and animals (or people who are animals, whatever), and from which we return reluctantly. We go Some Where Else, and then we come back.

Further In, and Higher Up, we follow Reepicheep's lead...

More later.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Synoptic Gospel


In my ongoing quest to disentangle the Gordian Knot that is the Pubber mind, I have tried to unravel the mystery of the Dreaded Synopsis, that ubiquitous demand of Agent and Editor that throws the Writer mind into helpless confusion. You may judge whether or not I have succeeded.

It is well known that penning this particular blasphemy is about as high on the average Writer's list of favorite things to do as root canal surgery. Or maybe colon resection.

Strong Writers have been reduced to whimpering wusses, trembling in every limb, at the thought of reducing the 400-page out-pouring of their souls to a mere 16-20 pages. To condense the majesty of their opus to its boiled dregs, to distill and remove so many sublime pages, wrought by blood and sweat, to a diluted precis, is a thought so painful many Writers cannot bring themselves to do it.

Worse still is the Short Synopsis, that one-or-two-page double-spaced evisceration of one's work. The ultimate horror, however, and Writers reading this may want to take a deep swig of some potent adult beverage before going on, is the obscenity known as the Logline, the reduction of the work to a measly one or two sentences.

Forgive me, gentle reader: but I must, as Mr. Knightly said, tell you the truth while I can.

After I wrote my first novel, and began my attempts to seduce an Agent, I discovered that almost all of them requested a Synopsis of one form or another, and so I broached the subject with some of my online Writer friends.

Some of them still won't talk to me.

So I tried to understand from the admissions of Pubbers themselves what they wanted when they asked for a Synopsis. My discovery left me more than ever convinced of the devious nature of Pubbers in general, and Agents and Editors in particular.

For a Synopsis requires a Writer to do that which we have been told by Pubbers never to do; to Tell rather than Show. This is why Writers, perhaps even unconsciously, so despise the Synopsis. It goes against everything we have trained ourselves to do, every instinct we have honed. Why, I asked my Self, would a Pubber ask a Writer to do something that they must know grates upon the Writer's psyche like a scalpel drawn across a glass window? And my Self answered me (follow me now), because they are naturally devious beings, six-faced and three-hearted.

But surely even a Pubber would not inflict such pain upon a Writer simply for the amusement. Would they? I began to look closer, and I believe I have discovered their secret.

In Your First Novel, a collusion between a published Author (Laura Whitcomb) and her Agent, (Ann Rittenberg), The Pubber makes this confession:

"There just doesn't seem to be any way of getting around the necessity of the synopsis. But I have to admit that I almost never read them, and neither do many of the fiction editors at the big mainstream publishing houses."

What the Billy Goat Gruff???

Now she goes on to give some reasons that give plausible denial to Pubbers: they want to see if the book is salable, or conforms to the guidelines of a particular genre, or whether they are too similar to previously pubbed works. She has, however, let the cat out of the proverbial bag, and since I despise all felines of the domestic persuasion, I determined to find out more. I found it, I believe, in Elizabeth Lyon's excellent The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit. One sentence on page 80 leaped out and Mennen Skin Bracer slapped me on the face.

"One literary agent I know said that she uses what writers send her as a barometer to measure how well they can follow instructions, and therefore to how well she can rely upon them if she takes them on as clients."

So their plan is laid bare in all its cunning simplicity: the Synopsis is not a tool to determine a Writer's ability, but to determine a Writer's compliability.

I have begun to practice writing STET in a broad Gothic script.