So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.
So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).
Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.
Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.
So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.
Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Café called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!
It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.
Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.
All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:
(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)
What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.
If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.
Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.
No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.
I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”
Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.
A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?
I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.
But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.
With this site back online and transitioning to a more robust server, I’m getting back into the swing of blogging with a dispatch update on the word trenches along this front. Regrettably, it turns out Pandemic Brain is not terribly conducive to writerly output. Fortunately, the solstice is approaching, and I’ve made use of some of this year, if not to put pixels on the page, at least to make notes on structure and dialogue.
And, I have put a few pixels on the page — in the form of a couple loose scenes out of order which I will either use when I get there or cannibalize for other uses.
Plus there have been some very useful meta conversations with my betas the past several months, which I may attempt to synthesize in future posts; for the moment, here’s a snippet.
Me: Meanwhile I've found my metaphor for the plot of TLT
Me: it's a textile one
Me: everyone has vital information that can darn the fabric of peace, and Speir is elected to be the needle
Me: but she has to figure that out first
Me: I think I'm going to indulge nearly all of my crackalicious ideas, too
Erica: I mean why not
Then follows some of the crackalicious ideas, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves all hell breaking loose in a ballroom, and this anticipated bit of dialogue:
"Speir, don't -- Speir! Sacred fucking lights," said Selkirk.
(The good thing about conducting most interactions with my betas over IM is that I have a record of things I am otherwise likely to forget. This pandemic situation has left me with the memory of a goddamn goldfish.)
All in all, I did what I could with a difficult year, and not only did I get Household Lights out, I got a few other things done as well. Next goal: get back on track marketing-wise. If there are opps for virtual interviews or panels, I want to find them.
[Crosspost from my Tumblr blog 15 October, where I stashed these thoughts during the site hiatus.]
Today I amused myself by ficcing my own ‘verse, as I like to do sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up. The majority of my main characters live in a country that is matrilineal, for reasons which I had fun building out. (Matrilineal, I say, not matriarchal — but even a matrilineal society is so far from the current landscape I live in that there seems little difference from this vantage, as I shall soon demonstrate.) One of them is the youngest of thirteen children, whose mother is a hard-working and locally influential farmer in a rural northern district. So today’s fun involved me making up stories for myself about his eldest sister and how she went about starting her own family with the help of a cousin from the next village over.
Now, I wanted to work out just how distant of a cousin I wanted her partner to be (I quite like him, he’s a nice fellow, very decent despite having grown up in a small and rather dysfunctional community), so I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to jot down a genealogical diagram…
And then had to stop, flummoxed. You know what a genealogical diagram looks like: a line is drawn between a man and a woman to signify they are married and/or had children, and then the next tier shows the children all depending from a single bar. But for Rosemary Douglas, mother of thirteen, head of her household, that doesn’t work. In her childbearing career she made contracts for children that double as local alliances with men who could afford to commit to sworn sponsorship. All of them planned — except for her youngest. How the hell would I diagram that?
I decided — I couldn’t. I’d just have to leave the fathers out. But neither did it make much sense to just have Rosemary, with a bar below her marked with all her children’s names in birth order from left to right, with no room for the kind of detail one would want for working out genetic relationships in matters like this. How would Ilonians diagram their genealogies, then?
I wound up drawing something like a factorial: Rosemary at the center, with her sons in a segmented line down the left, and her daughters in line down the right, the elder closer in and the youngest at ends of each line. Her daughters could be diagrammed the same way: a hinterland rather than a tree, very Ilonian. To work out genetic details at need, one could write the name of the father/sponsor on the line segment between Rosemary and each child, and work back to his mother from there. You could see then how often lines would cross and avoid overentanglements.
I have no idea how actual maternal lines are diagrammed in RL. But I was sort of shocked afresh at how spatially embedded in our minds patriarchy is. I was used to thinking of a Bowen genealogical diagram as a logical reflection of how humans are, how their generations pass, universally. But it isn’t, really. It’s like how “matrimony” doesn’t mean the same as “patrimony” except with mothers: matrimony means “I have acquired a womb!” and patrimony means “I have acquired a dynasty!”
In any event, in reference to quotations I’ve seen round here about sci-fi and fantasy as the kind of imaginative activism necessary to envision a better world for ourselves, I have been doing exactly that: telling myself stories of people living complicated, imperfect, not-always-easy lives in a world I want to see emulated, for the sake of my own sanity in these times. And I’m telling you about it, in case it helps.
Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.
So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.
Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.
I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.
A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.
Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.
It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.
And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.
This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.
Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.
And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.
The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.
And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.
“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.
But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.
You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.
I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?
I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.
But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.
A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.
When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.
But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.
Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.
I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.
But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”
…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.
Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.
Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?
And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.
For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.
It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.
It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.
And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”
A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.
The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.
Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?
To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!
This book has been on my TBR list for a while. So when I hied myself over to my branch library to renew my card and saw it on the shelf, I checked it out. (Disappointingly, several books I had hoped to put holds on are not in the system. Obviously I’m going to have to put a second string to my bow and sign up for a JoCo account.)
I admit, a big selling point for the book was the fact that it’s small. (Again with the ways in which I am not the reader Author Me is looking for.) I didn’t realize the book was actually a novella; if I wanted to be That Bitch I would check the word count and issue Commentary on how 50k words is not ten thousand words too many to be considered a novella, So There. But eh, who has time for that. Time War is, pretty clearly, a novella; it has no wasteful digressions, no overblown prose, no jags where there ought to be jigs. I read it in the same afternoon, with time left over for a nap.
I gave it the same four stars on Goodreads that I give to other excellent books, but I didn’t write a review of it there because I wasn’t actually sure what I thought about it. And — I still don’t. The back jacket cover is full of blurbs giving a kind of praise I’ve never seen before — I think Gerard Manley Hopkins was name-checked at one point, which you definitely don’t see every day — and none of it was stuff I thought about the book, but I thought it plausible that someone else might think it.
The story, you would think, hits my Enemies Who Love Each Other kink whang in the gold. Not quite: the two time soldiers in this story fall in love as enemies and continue in their duties even after they’ve acknowledged their secret and forbidden love; but it wasn’t quite the specific non-romantic love of enemy for enemy that I hunger for so much. Close, though; as close as things usually get.
I think the book both stands and falls on its thoroughgoing commitment to discorporealized action. Or…dyscorporealized action, in some instances. Like Charles Williams (honestly he’s much more my go-to comparable than GMH for this), the actions these time soldiers take, the letters they write, happen in an almost metaphysical realm, the synapses between thoughts, between beats of the heart. The story is written and lived in interstitial, intercostal spaces; the reveal of the seeker-shadow is a fulfillment rather than a bucking of its trope; for all the main characters tell one another about their physical lives, those lives are conducted at a far remove from anything we experience. Possibly the most anchoring thing in the book is the occasional allusion to memes of our time — I laughed when I encountered the reference to “I’m in ur base killing ur doods.” Do kids these days know that meme?
Trying to get a critical grasp on this story, I noticed that it’s written in tight-third, present tense POV — a perspective tailor-made for this kind of story; or vice versa. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment when I say it’s like fanfiction pieces written by the best practitioners of that perspective. But tight-third present tense perspective became popular among fic writers precisely because it is so handy for invoking this dreamlike sense of immediacy, and — if you have the chops for it — providing the bevels needed for imagistic wordplay and incantatory style.
This stylistic choice is not just popular in the realm of fanfiction, but when you find it out in the wild it’s usually in literary fiction. I suspect that reviewers have a Pavlovian response to encountering this style, which is to tag it as having high literary merit whether it does or not. But that’s not El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s fault. Their book does everything it does in good faith, and in the end I suppose that’s why I liked it as much as I did.
But the thing I liked best about the book, the thing that filled all those resonant spaces in my heart whenever I pick up a story looking for Escape in Tolkien’s sense, was the last line of the acknowledgments section at the back. El-Mohtar and Gladstone clearly mean their book to be an act of resistance, as all real art is in times like these, and the last thing they have to say about it — and the last thing I have to say about it — is this:
Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re all still here.
Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.
Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.
However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.
So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.
This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.
But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.
Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.
Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.
At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.
A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.
Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.
Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.
Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.
* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.
I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.
Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.
In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.
The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.
Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.
A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.
But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.
As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.
The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!
But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.
Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.
Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.
Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.
There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.
But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.
And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.
Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.