If you’re a cinema person, or if you’ve ever worked in or near a sales office, you’ve seen the Glengarry Glenn Ross speech. You know the one I mean. This one. (Warning: NSFW / language)
I once worked with a sales team that could recite this speech from memory. One guy told me, voice swollen with pride, that his four-year-old walked into the kitchen while he was pouring coffee one morning, glared at him, and said: “Daddy, coffee is for closers!”
Mamet wrote this speech for the film adaption of GGR—but it proved so popular he grafted it back onto the stage show, even though it’s a pain to stage, since you have to cast a whole actor for one scene. Common reactions on first exposure to the scene include rage, horror, frustration, scorn, all the emotions we read from Baldwin’s audience of broken-down real estate salesmen. But the speech is also, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this, selling something; Baldwin’s character wants to sell these salesmen on being a salesman of a particular sort. He grabs attention with rhetoric, bluster, and status. (“This watch cost more than your car.”) He promises them, implicitly, that good salesmen get rich, that good salesmen get respect, that good salesmen get that greatest (macho) privilege, the right to shout at people and know they have to listen. It’s effective as it is gross. By the end of that scene, every man in that room wants to murder Baldwin—but since that’s not legal, they’ll settle for beating him at his own game. He’s sold them through their anger. They want to win, or at least to defend themselves. Attention. Interest. Decision. Action.
Last night, as the Attorney and I chatted about the differences between legal writing and fiction, I found myself thinking about this scene in a new light. Writers—writers of fiction especially—always have to be closing.
People are busy, and they live in a world filled with art. (I mean, in its loosest sense: any intentional work that captures the mind. Games obviously qualify, as do sports, either the kind you watch or the kind you play. So does the social web—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. etc. etc., are all built to make you pay attention.) Writers come to people saying, “read this story!” And the people answer: why? I mean, really, why?
Readers do want to engage with stories—they want to be swept away, they want to be enlightened, they want to forget their lives or have their mind blown, they want to escape either in the flighty sense or the LeGuinian sense of liberation from a prison camp. But readers also want, or need, to (watch the latest episode of $Cool_TV_Show_All_Their_Friends_Watch | finish their essay | go to the gym | cook dinner | pick up the kids | answer email | plan their wedding | do $pressing_chore | play a Batman video game). Time is real estate. No one’s making any more of it. A storyteller has to convince readers that her story is worth the time it takes to hear.
And by “convince,” I mean “sell.”
This is where AIDA comes in—the Attention, Interest, Decision, Action cycle, it seems to me, holds for reader and character alike. We’re used to thinking about character motivation on a beat-by-beat level. Attention: how did the character get to this scene? Interest: why does the character care about these events? Decision: what decision does she make? Action: how does she carry out that decision? So far, so good—we’re solidly in Robert McKee territory.
But the reader goes through a similar cycle. So, when editing or breaking story, seems to me we can ask ourselves a similar list of questions about the reader. Attention: why would a reader pay attention to this? (Possible answers: because the book’s funny; because it scared the crap out of her; because it’s wise; because she wants to puzzle out some tangled prose; because the book offers an escape; because she’s angry; because she’s bemused.) Interest: why would a reader continue? (Will the villain get a comeuppance? Will Our Heroine’s scheme collapse around her? Does the reader see an echo of her own struggle? Are you fulfilling wishes, realizing nightmares, offering a laugh or a shoulder to cry on? Is your writing just that good on a line by line level?) Decision: will the reader keep going? (Yes; no; yes, but the next time you fuck up, she’s gone; yes, ecstatically; yes, but she’ll skim through each scene of endless clunky unrealistic politicical argument; yes, but only so she can rant about the book afterward) And action: the page turn. The closing book. The book, hurled with great force over Niagra Falls. The book, in a blender.
This would be a dangerous way for, e.g., me to think during composition, since my first drafts involve a lot of telling the story to myself, complete with false starts and stops, tics, and coffee breaks. First drafts are that night before a speech, pacing in my hotel room, stammering through the roughest shape of what I mean to say. Composition is about selling myself on the story. (If I worked more to Hollywood spec, I’d do this at the breaking / pitch stage.)
But once composition’s done, and I’m editing a draft—well. Time to sell the reader. Time to be the best kind of scum: fearless and inventive. Time to go through the manuscript and ask, at every turn: am I always closing? What does this line do for me? This word? This exchange?
The great thing about these AIDA questions, to my mind, is that there are many different good answers, especially to the first two. Often story structure advice boils down to “DO THIS OR ELSE YOUR BOOK WILL CATCH ON FIRE AND YOUR READERS DESERT YOU,” with implied scorn for hard writing, quiet scenes, or anything “literary.” (For a good example, see the Screenplay Seminar scene in Adaptation.) But different things interest different readers—hell, different things interest the same reader. I love Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I love Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and I love Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, but these are, to put it mildly, different books, deploying a broad range of techniques to hold the reader’s mind. Is the reader interested in your swordfight? In your prose? In your Kantian ruminations? In all of the above? What reason have you given her, in this beat, to turn the page?
Maybe this helps you. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, I’m interested. I’ll use this angle as I revise the first draft I finished yesterday; you’ll see how it goes.
A few weeks back I watched John Wick for the first time. In this movie, Keanu Reeves plays the titular Wick, a former hit man gone straight, who comes out of retirement after the local Russian mob boss’ son invades his (Wick’s) home, steals his car, and kills his puppy.
I swear all this relates to writing. Just give me time.
So the Russian mob boss discovers his son has made a mortal enemy of the implacable, nigh-invincible Wick, who was so good at his job in his heydey that he was regarded as a supernatural force—Baba Yaga. He tries to patch things up with Wick, but fails. Now, the only thing our mob boss can do is order a pre-emptive strike on Wick’s house by twelve ski-mask-wearing goons, and hope it works.
The following occurs:
Just… ponder that beautiful scene for a second. John Wick did well with general audiences, but from action fans I heard a collective scream of joy for, among the film’s other virtues, its return to legible fight scenes, and rejection of the Bourne Consensus of Shakey-Cam Combat. The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify. There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant. This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops. The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance. Nor does the choreography stint from displays of sheer strength and determination, highlighting this important element of the character. While we begin (from 0:17 to 0:35) with angle, rotation, speed, and precision, we end (as the movie itself ends) with an uncomfortable forty seconds of flailing over a knife.
After the credits rolled, I stood and paced the house thinking, how on earth could I accomplish that same effect in prose? How could I write scenes that felt like those?
Now, for most of my life my instinct has been: well, you just describe what happened! So, first he shoots the one guy, then spins and shoots the other guy twice, then changes angle to shoot the third guy. But that doesn’t capture the information coded in the elegance of Wick’s motion, or even the tiny details that make the first four-shot sequence stick, like blood spray or the spatter on the photograph on the back wall. (Let alone the music’s heightening of tension and discomfort, or the cinematography’s coding of shadow as threat and moonlight as exposure and the way that plays with the bad guys’ darker wardrobes and balaclavas, the gunshot flares as revelatory instrument.) Capturing all of that would require a denser, fuller prose approach that would conflict with the speed of the scene, unless we wanted to embrace the Proust.
It gets even worse when interactions grow more complicated than “shoot the dude / dude falls down.” Toward the end of that three minute clip we segue into strikes and locks, and most readers don’t have the technical vocabulary to read a description of that fight and extract meaning. Consider, say, the brief exchange of blows from 1:44 up to the flip at 1:50—guy goes for gun, Wick kicks gun away, guy goes for a hammerfist with his right which Wick blocks & redirects down, goes for a chop or a haymaker with the left which Wick strike-blocks Bruce Lee style, then it looks like Wick goes for a stomach hit to distract the guy while he transitions into the wrist lock then pirouettes for an over the shoulder throw so the guy lands on his (guy’s, not Wick’s) back. I bet it took you longer than six seconds to read that description—and that’s having just watched the video.
If you only read my description and did not watch the video, maybe you could piece together what actually happened on a blow-for-blow level, but it would probably involve reading the above paragraph with a tolerant friend and some free time. Certainly, if I tried to convey that choreography, not to mention the overall feel of the event, I would almost certainly bore my reader—or at least take several pages to describe a handful of seconds’ interaction.
The more I thought about this problem, the more convinced I became that John Wick’s charm is due to the fact that it sets itself challenges at which movies excel. I’m no cinema scholar—someone who was could probably give you a better summary—but here are a few points: movies show movement, and humans are really good at parsing movement—especially at parsing the movement of other humans! We know how bodies bend, the ways they’re supposed to move and the ways they aren’t. Soon as we see someone’s arm broken on camera, we know what that means. Movies can convey multiple streams of visual information at once, guiding our attention with focus and camerawork. As the Plinkett Reviews repeat again and again, ‘you didn’t notice [this tiny cinematic detail], but yer brain did.’
Prose fiction does not excel at any of the above. Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, note: I’m not saying prose fiction can’t have awesome fights, or action, or anything like that! What I’m saying is, the qualities that go into making a book as exciting for a reader as John Wick was for me as an action movie buff are different. That book would have to make use of its form, of the particular constraints and opportunities of prose fiction, the way John Wick—or any other action film—uses its own cinematic toolbox.
This should go without saying, but I’m not sure it does any more. For one thing, constant repetition and misuse of advice like “show don’t tell” can lead writers to use the cursor like a camera lens, and only like a camera lens, which seems to me like using a Shun chef’s knife to open your mail. For another, modern imaginations have been shaped to a great degree by film and television and video games—and have shaped them in turn, of course. Most people likely to be writing a fight scene in 2015 have probably seen many more fights on television or in movies than they’ve ever seen or been a part of in real life, likely several orders of magnitude more. David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram goes into this notion in greater detail, though his vision of a voyeuristic writership has been altered a bit by the two-way fisheye internet world, in which we all have cameras pointed at us as we sit at our computers watching video feeds from cameras other people have pointed at themselves, while the government watches us watching, etc. People repeat what they’ve seen—so writers tend to pick up storytelling tricks and beats they like, even (as in the case of the cinematic fight) they’re not terribly well-suited to prose.
So, what can prose do well?
Man, isn’t that a question with deep roots. I’ve been pondering it for a while, and damn if I’ve come up with a solid answer, but I have a few ideas.
Prose can convey an immense amount of narrative in a terrifyingly brief time. For my money, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—the book, I mean, not the film—does an amazing job of establishing the Corleone family enforcer Luca Brasi as a Man With Whom You Do Not Fuck, even though we never see him in action. If you’ve only seen the film, Luca is the guy who wanders around the wedding stammering and practicing how to pay his respects to Don Corleone, who’s then killed at the beginning of the feud. (The “sleeps with the fishes” scene.) He’s a tough operator, but he doesn’t stand out from the Don’s other soldiers.
In the book, Luca’s a demon. The last time someone tried to kill Don Vito, Luca went on a non-stop murderous rampage through the New York underworld, the kind of stuff that would fill a whole grindhouse movie. We don’t see any of this. We receive second-hand descriptions, stories of him tying people to chairs and attacking them with axes, all in others’ mouths. If I remember correctly—I don’t have my copy of the book to hand, and it’s been years—this material totals up to a page, maybe two, but it’s enough for us to be absolutely certain that as long as Luca’s alive, no one will dare touch Don Corleone. (So, of course, when Luca gets assassinated, we all of a sudden fear for Don Corelone’s life.)
We never see Luca Brasi fight in The Godfather. We know the danger he presents. That’s enough.
Prose also has the power to convey information and focus through ambiguity. Here are the opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:
The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event was to take place, he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
(signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent.
Think about how much we get from these few words, without any feeling of forced “info-dumping”: tragedy, setting, time, fault. But Morrison also introduces signifiers with unresolved meanings. What does Smith or the book mean, exactly, by ‘fly’? Or, for that matter, by ‘his own wings’? And Mercy, what’s that? Of course, the whole book’s about working out the answers to these questions—Morrison hasn’t just introduced ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But by introducing a few terms without easily decidable meaning, she forces us to ask the questions she wants.
Film’s attempts to accomplish these same effects feel more forced, to me. Datelines and time stamps are artificial, and textual ambiguity is much harder to achieve, since we don’t have a text to ponder; in film, we see whatever stands before the camera lens (though there are great moments of inversion, misdirection, and visual or sensory confusion in cinema too—c.f. Rian Johnson’s Brick, or the scene in Sneakers where Robert Redford claims to have been driven, blindfolded, through a cocktail party).
Storytelling—by which I mean, moments when characters tell stories—works brilliantly in books, because when we’re reading a book we are reading a story—when I read, say, Smiley’s monologue about Karla in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am engaged in the same sort of mental work as I am when I read Smiley going about his day in third-person narrative. When a character monologues in a film, I am watching that character tell a story, and imagining the events that character describes—which is a different mental activity than normal moviegoing. (Of course, filmmakers can address this issue by transforming monologues into staged moments in their own right—the 2013 Tinker, Tailor turns Karla’s monologue into such a dramatic moment that I at least was riveted.) Absalom, Absalom lives and breathes this technique—we read tales nested within tales nested within tales, the same story told time and again with different emphasis in different characters’ mouths as interlocking truths come clear.
(And then of course we have questions of unreliable narration, c.f. Eco, Wolfe, etc.)
Much as prose can layer realities, it can also extend or compress time to ludicrous degrees. I’m not talking about slow-motion work, though some of the ship-to-ship battles in Peter F. Hamilton’s gloriously mad Nightsdawn Trilogy—dancing from microscopic particle interactions on a timeframe of nanoseconds to supernova blasts—would put any Wachowski-inspired bullet-time fantasia to shame. For example, here’s an early passage from A Wizard of Earthsea:
This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of death’s kingdom. But in those first steps along the way, it seemed a long, bright road.
When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know.
Talk about telescoping! The first sentence covers Ged’s (who at this point is called Duny) entire life, all the way to the end of this book if not the entire series. Then we swoop back to the child’s point of view. Next graf, we get a single brilliantly observed image, “lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist” (and note the slight lighting-thunder / lightning-thunder wordplay, and the delicious honeysweetness of doubled “wings” and “wrist”, because LeGuin, goddammit, LEGUIN!), one of those sharp word-pictures that seems to last forever—yet within the same sentence we jump through what would have to be, in cinema, a scene—little Ged runs to his aunt, “aunt teach me the names of sparrowhawk osprey and eagle”, aunt grins evilly, “well, you must do exactly what I tell you,” “yes I’ll do it,” cue then us having to see what unpleasant things she asks him to do and know, which would certainly be more pleasant than the things we invent in our mind when we read that final sentence. And after this we zoom back out in a different direction to discuss Gontish culture and the business of wizards.
Prose can also convey immense amounts of information by focus. Noir fight scenes like this one from The Big Sleep do this well:
Agnes turned the gun away from me and swung it at Carmen. I shot my hand out and closed my fingers down hard over her hand and jammed my thumb on the safety catch. It was already on. I kept it on. There was a short silent tussle, to which neither Brody nor Carmen paid any attention whatever. I had the gun.
And this is one of Chandler’s wordier fights! I don’t have a copy of Hammett’s The Thin Man to hand, my own personal failing I’m sure, but I am positive I remember a fight between Nick and some mook that goes down like this:
He had a gun.
I took it from him.
Both scenes establish Marlowe’s and Nick’s competence with violence by not describing that violence—because it’s so routine for these characters that they need not focus on it, any more than White need focus on Lancelot’s unhorsing of knights at tourney, or Shakespeare need establish Othello’s military competence beyond that one brilliant line:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Wrestling for a gun is routine enough, for Marlowe and Nick, that they need only relate the pertinent information about the event: its outcome. (And, in the case of The Big Sleep, the disposition of the safety catch, which captures Agnes’ character in a nutshell.)
Alternatively, some depictions of violence capture its aesthetics through the tools of rhetoric rather than dance. The great Ming Dynasty novels deploy this effect particularly well—especially in the poetry fights of Journey to the West. Opening vol 2 of Anthony C. Yu’s translation to a random page, in this case 47, I find:
[The monster, wielding a scimitar, and Zhu Bajie, wielding his muckrake], summoning their magic powers, mounted the clouds to fight in midair. Sha Monk abandoned the luggage and the white horse; wielding his precious staff, he joined the fray also. At this time, two fierce monks and one brazen monster began a savage battle on the edge of the clouds. Thus it was that:
The staff rose high, met by the scimitar
The muckrake came, blocked by the scimitar
One demon warrior used his power;
Two divine monks displayed their might.
The nine-pronged rake, how truly heroic!
The fiend-routing staff, ferocious indeed!
Their blows fell left and right, in front and in back,
But squire Yellow Robe showed no fear at all. [That’s the monster -ed.]
See his steel scimitar shining like silver!
And, in truth, his magic power was great.
They fought till all the sky
Was fogbound and beclouded;
And in midmountain
Stones cracked and cliffsides collapsed.
This one, for the sake of fame,
How could he give up?
That one, for the sake of his master,
Would surely show no fear.
That stampeding sound, I hope, is all of you going to buy copies of Journey to the West right now. Poetry emerges to signal a change in the style of the text—much as fight scenes are shot and formalized differently from dialogue in action cinema. And, by moving to poetry, the writer gains the freedom to play weird language games—rhythm and rhyme, aggressive parallelism, alliteration—conveying the excitement, pulse, and power of staged combat in a manner paragraphic prose finds hard to imitate.
In fact, with its frenetic pace, and the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are both fundamentally comic characters (one is the Sancho Panza of divine shapeshifting pig monsters, the other God’s own straight man), the poem comes off in context as something like the following scene from Project A:
… Okay, you got me, I just wanted to include a Sammo Hung clip with this post.
Of course these techniques (compression, expansion, ambiguity, focus manipulation, storytelling, unreliability) are the tiniest fraction of the prose fiction toolkit. Metaphor! God, I could write for days on metaphor and simile. Especially as they apply to action! Think about all the awesome comparisons of the Iliad. If I tried to make this comprehensive, I’d kill myself on this one essay, and I have books to write.
So, why did I spend so much time on this essay? For one thing, it amused me to do so. For another: in online discussions of style, I tend to see prose work analyzed on a single axis, from “purple” to “invisible,” neither term well-defined—a tendency that in my opinion ignores the beating heart of prose—what it does well, what it does poorly, what separates a book from a film, and what makes books teleologically better, that is, better at being books.
Because look at that Project A fight scene again—we get Sammo Hung’s sense of humor, and Jackie Chan’s, we get the joy these people have in one another’s presence, we get that they’re unstoppable side by side, that they know one another well enough to anticipate each other’s reactions. If we were to be writing the book that was Project A, that’s the information we’d have to convey—breathless joyful partnership against all odds at a fast tempo. The precise choreography of the fight seems incidental to that purpose. The John Wick scene back at the top of the essay (you remember the top of the essay?) conveys despair, fury, method, and cold cold logic—in John Wick, the book, our job would be to convey those, not to describe step by step the death ballet.
See? I told you this would be about writing sooner or later.
This continues to be Max’s Month from AAAAAAH, so of course I took some time out earlier this week to host Warring States Era Chinese Philosophy Storytime on Tor.com! Check it out:
Sit down, because I’m going to tell you about, objectively speaking, the best philosophical movement in history.
If you’re saying “what gives, Max, this is a little looser than your usual style,” well, I delivered two books last month, and this month I have a game to write and page proofs to approve and two short stories due, so y’all get Philosophy Story Time.
DISCLAIMER: Being of fractured mind and atrophying body, I’m not cite-checking this blog post. This is my “off the top of my head” survey of Mohism, the Warring States Period, etc., which is pretty solid, but if you base a paper on this, on your own head be the fault.
Most of Chinese philosophy’s core strains come from a time called the Warring States period, which lasted for about two hundred fifty years and started about 2,500 years ago. You know that bit at the beginning of Star Wars where the crawl says “It is a time of CIVIL WAR”? That’s the Warring States era. Basically the Western Zhou, the dynasty which sort of ruled a decent chunk of the land we now call China, split into hundreds of tiny city-states, and they all slammed against one another at high velocity until they glommed into eight larger kingdoms that then, well, warred.
Everyone was warring with everyone all the time, and life sucked.
And since everyone was warring with everyone all the time, and life sucked, people started asking: why does life suck so much? Does it have to? Could westop life from sucking?
Since I’m not likely to be appreciably less busy next week, check back for a retelling of the story of Gong Shu Ban, with funny voices.
OH! And and and! A few months back, I was fortunate enough to be a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast! And now the episode is up! I’m talking about the Magical 1%—about Worldbuilding That Revolves Around You, The Hero. And more! I had a great time talking with the Writing Excuses team, and hopefully I sound something like coherent on air. Judge for yourself!
National Novel Writing Month is here! If you’re not a dual-class writer / internet person this may not mean much to you, so here’s the skinny: every November, people around the world sign up to write 50,000 words over the course of the calendar month. This is a large number of words to write. For participant, especially those who haven’t done it before, NaNoWriMo may feel like a constant sprint against a voracious and ever-advancing wordcount target. 1,667 words every single day. Weekends. Holidays.
The Target does not stop. The Target does not sleep. The Target doesn’t care about your nervous breakdown. Tired? Wrists hurt? Out of coffee? Tough. The Target still shambles forward, rotten teeth jutting jagged from rotten gums. Run as fast as you can, look back, and you’ll find the Target behind you—always just behind you somehow, over your shoulder, down that alley. Rest and it will find you. The Target has no sympathy. The Target feels no pain. The Target doesn’t feel anything, really, not even hunger. Feelings are a distraction. The Target eats. The Target follows. The Target’s behind you right now. You could feel its breath on your neck, if it breathed. The air stinks of rot and typewriter ribbon.
I live the fight against the Target. I lived it long before I stumbled into this neat, terrifying place where I fight the Target full-time. If this is your first time through, or, hell, if this is your fifth time through but you still feel that fear, if you wake some nights drowning in the stink of rot and typewriter ribbon—I’m here to offer you some pieces of advice I hope will be worth the time you’re even now thinking you could have, should have, spent running, fighting, building barricades. I hope—this will help you. Because it’s a vicious world out there.
Don’t Panic (Though it will get bad.) The Target knows your fear. It’s not smart, understand—but it uses your own smarts against you, instinctively. Our great-great-a-billion-times-great grandmas were little rats quivering under leaves as monstrous feathered lizards prowled for a snack—we’re built to freeze under pressure, or to run. The Target’s dumb, but thorough. If you remain in place, it will devour you. And the closer it gets (or the further ahead it gets!) the more a little voice will whisper in your ear: freeze. Don’t trust that voice. The Target won’t get you if you run, and keep running. And on that note…
Don’t Sprint (Unless You’re Almost Safe.) If you want to rely on sprinting, you should have been born a cheetah. There’s good evidence humans evolved to jog after animals across the savannah until they died from exhaustion and fright. You remember the bit in Butch and Sundance where they go: “Who are these guys?” That’s us, in the animal kingdom. That’s humans. I know a woman who accidentally killed her friend’s dog while taking it for a run—she’s an ultramarathonner, and turns out dogs aren’t built to run marathons. That’s the human race right there. We can sprint, when we need to, but that’s not how we’re built. Write ten thousand words in a day and your wrists will cringe, your back will seize, your scavenger’s mind will yearn to do anything else. Which is fine if you’ve just made it to that Last Redoubt called The End. It’s a problem if you’re in the middle of Act III with 40,000 words left and Target closing in. If you’re behind, if you’re in Target-held territory, figure out how to extricate yourself smoothly and dependably. Yes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a couple weeks on a single roll of butcher paper, but (1) you’re not Jack Kerouac, (2) he was on a disgusting amount of Benzedrine, and (3) you’re still not Jack Kerouac. Oh, and (4), he’d written three test drafts of the novel before he sat down with the butcher paper. So:
Trust Your Plan (Most of the time.) Stress makes human beings good at lots of stuff, but it shoots our reasoning abilities in the gut. Literally! Your body doesn’t know the difference between “oh god oh god tiger gonna eat me” and “this is a minor career setback that can be overcome with reasonable effort.” So when you smell that rot and typewriter ribbon, you’ll manufacture all sorts of crazy ideas. What the hell am I doing? I should set fire to this whole manuscript. I should set fire to this whole coffee shop. Most insidious: this plan, these ideas I wrote back when I was safe, before the world began to burn, they’re all shit and I’m shit and oh my god we’ve been on the wrong path this entire time, let’s run left into the forest! Which isn’t bad in itself, but odds are you don’t know how to navigate the forest, and there are actual honest-to-god tigers out there. But sometimes you have to…
Listen to Your Gut (When it’s right.) Yeah, I know, I just said don’t do this, but if this was a science we’d be on PhDComics and I’d have better job security. Here’s the flip side of “trust your plan”—you made your plan before you met the Target. You made your plan based on a Google Earth map of the territory you’d be running through, without setting foot on the ground. Maybe that route you charted is uphill. Maybe Google Earth was wrong (shock! horror!) and the route’s actually a dead end. Maybe Godzilla smashed the Golden Gate Bridge, and you needed that bridge. Yeah, your plan made sense when you drew it, but you know, now, that you’ve taken a wrong turn. Here’s storytelling’s dirty secret, the ball they hide in those seminars about Aristotle and Freytag: our bodies know stories. And just so we don’t hide the ball any further: yes, I’m talking about sex. Just look at this diagram, which is super-industry-standard stuff I pulled from a Gamasutra article I found by googling Story Tension Diagram. There are roughly a billion of these on the internet.
What’s that look like to you? Really? To me it looks like an excellent night in. There’s a writing prompt here, but I try to keep this site pg-13.
But, and this is crucial, there is a difference between the voice in your gut that’s right and the voice that’s wrong. That’s hard to learn. You learn it on the ground, in unfamiliar territory, with Target closing in. Some guidelines that work for me: the voice that says “this project is horrible, you’re horrible” is generally wrong. The voice that says, “woah, wait a second, I’m really not into this” is often right. For me, and feel free to disregard because I’m verging on Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo here, if I’m paying attention I can even tell where those voices are coming from. The first sits behind and above my shoulders, pressing down and forward. The second is a hole just in front of my spine, below the belly button, about where taiji folks will place the dan-t’ien. Done with Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo for the moment. Trust your gut. Trust your plan. You won’t survive without both.
Find Friends who Know the Target. This is a lonely fight. It’s terrifying. People lose all the time. You will freeze, you will dive into the woods, you will hew to a plan when the landscape on which the plan was based lies in a million shattered pieces at your feet. You need friends. You need people who understand. It’s best if they’ve been here before, if they’ve run from the Target, if they’re running now—but really, if you scratch the surface, everyone has a Target. They might not realize it, but they do. Find friends. Lower your shields against one another so you can present a shield wall against the Target. Beat an orderly retreat together.
Trust the Time Machine. There’s a time machine in the Last Redoubt, and once you reach it, you can go back. Those weird sentences you know you wrote? You can fix them. That unnecessary chapter? Make it necessary, or cut it out. That scene which starts too soon, or too late, you can start it on time. Don’t flounder on the road, dreaming about the time machine. Once you reach the Last Redoubt, you’ll have all the time in the world. For now, you have to keep moving—so long as you know what direction you’re moving in. This is especially true while the Target’s chasing you. There’s no time for Joycean line-by-line angst. Run. Move. Breathe. Make mistakes. If they are mistakes, you can fix them later. But sometimes they aren’t mistakes. Sometimes they’re bigger than that. Sometimes they’re big enough to be genius.
It’s not about the Target. Betrayal! you cry. Treachery! Treason! Hogwash, I say: the target does not matter. Repeat that. If the Target matters, you will lose. The Target is death, the Target is implacable, the Target is the mechanical pacing rabbit. Don’t settle for surviving the Target. Have something to live for. Know what you want at the end of the race. Know your Last Redoubt. Know the friend you’ll rescue in the knick of time. Aim for that swordfight, that first kiss, the final joke you’ve spent the whole book setting up. Remember why you’re here—remember why you decided to write this book. Justice? Love? Rebellion? Taste it. Smell it. That’s what will pull you forward, through all the connective tissue, through all the wrong turns, through the jungle, through the stench of rot and ribbon. Go there. Take your reader with you.
I’m Writing this for You, and for Me. There’s a reason I don’t do writing advice on this blog often. Storytelling is the big human project. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years—exploring its possibilities, developing forms and techniques, trying new things and rehearsing old schemes. We tell stories about gods and we tell stories about atoms and we tell stories about people, who are even weirder than gods and atoms. Storytelling is complicated, is what I’m saying. I’ve thought about this stuff for a long time. I’ve written way more than my 10,000 hours. I still lose my way. I come from schools of martial arts where teaching is what a master gives you, or a coach. Senior students know what works for them—but they might not know enough to know that their advice only works in a certain context. A fencer might feel he’s winning for one reason but might actually be winning for another reason altogether. It’s mad.
And I’m no master. I’ve published books. I’ve been nominated for awards. I write quickly, and well, and dependably. And still I just finished a 12,500 word story—took me four days to write, and in the process I had every problem I’ve listed here, and more besides. This is a letter to my future self as much as it is to you. Maybe this will all come off as presumptive and weird. But…
I started bouldering this year. And one of the things I love about it is: there’s no master. Just you and the wall. And if you’re having trouble, one thing you can do is turn to the guy or gal next to you and say, “Damn, I’m having a hard time with this. Any ideas?” Their ideas might not work. They might. But either way they give you something new to take to the wall.
So that’s what I have for you this week: a bit of advice from someone else staring up the wall.
We read their speech in English, sure, but the language in which Bilbo et. al. talk Longbottom Leaf bears little relationship to English as spoken in Tolkien’s day, let alone ours. We read a representation of that speech in English—that’s to say, a translation. And though I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to have a detailed grammar of Western Common salted away in his papers, he wrote his manuscripts for the most part in English. So we have pipeweed and second cousins twice removed on the mother’s side, and birthday parties and country gentlemen turning the ripe old age of eleventy-one.
Translation, done right, is brilliant and difficult, but when done even a little wrong it can break the meaning and cultural associations of the source text. My favorite example: there’s an old Chinese sport / pastime that features prominently in Ming Dynasty fiction, which most modern translations render as “football.” Now, think about Ming Dynasty football. Have a vision in your head of what that would look like? Does it feature Ming Dynasty Pele or Peyton Manning?
Yeah, well, you’re both wrong. The term translated “Football” here refers to a game in which folks stand in a circle and attempt to pass a leather ball from one to another without using their hands. We’re talking, basically, about hackeysack as played by 15th-century Chinese gentlemen. I don’t know why American translators shrink from calling a hackeysack a hackeysack—except maybe that (a) it stinks of modernity (in much the same reason you can’t name a character in historical fiction about 11th century England “Tiffany” even though people back then were named Tiffany), and (b) it summons up weird cultural associations, mostly of skinny dreadlocked barefoot prep school boys kicking the sack with weed smoke heavy on the air and Widespread Panic playing in the background. (I guess that might be Mumford & Sons these days? I AM NOT COOL.) Now, I think those cultural associations are informative and interesting, but I’m not a professional translator and apparently there’s been a consensus of translation—but the consensus means uninformed readers of translations that describe the sport as “football” will have a picture of what’s happening in the story that’s as vivid as it is incorrect.
Language is weird. And it gets weirder in subcreated or “secondary world” fantasy, in which, ostensibly, neither English nor any of the hundreds of tongues it’s mugged for grammar and vocabulary exist. Do you like your secondary-world steampunk gentlemen to wear purple ascots? Then you’d better take care that your world has a Royal Ascot Club, because that’s where the word comes from. Anyone ever eat a sandwich? Where does that word come from? What do your characters drink? Wine comes from the French, rivverrun roundabout from Latin. Whiskey springs from a Gaelic source word, lager is German, vodka’s Russian, aqua vitae is Latin rendering of the meaning of the Gaelic, aquavit has similar origins but refers to something else entirely.
And of course, the physical correlates of all these linguistic artifacts have their own cultural significance! The ascot has the social connotations it does because of accidents of history—and the same’s true of spats, the necktie, golf, swing music, slam poetry, minstrels, druids, scotch, pinstripes, sagging pants, the zoot suit, the miniskirt, blue jeans, sequins. We could try to shuffle the significance of these symbols, but it’s rare to pull this off without utterly confusing the reader. We could try to invent new symbols whole cloth, but that way lies three-page descriptions of the significance of various characters’ modes of dress. Which is great if that’s the kind of book you want to write! But it’s a particular kind of book, meant for a particular audience.
The closer we get to a modern setting, the more we have to deal with modern words and concepts and frameworks: Dumpster’s a brand name, as are Kleenex and Xerox and Polaroid. Jazz is jazz because history. It’s easy to claim we see these things as complex and contingent because the modern world is complex and contingent, but I wonder if, say, 14th century France didn’t seem every bit as complex and contingent to people who lived there. There probably would be fewer brand names, sure, but it’s not as if fashion and prejudice are original to the 20th century.
There are many ways to deal with this in writing fantasy, and they’re all right when used well. One’s to use new language for old stuff with old connotations. That’s cool, but occasionally confusing. One’s to use new language for new stuff with new connotations. That works too, though it’s so easy to mess up by creating a world that’s too simple and too complex at once. (Readers may not be amused if, once they learn the seventeen new words you’ve asked them to, they realize your culture is a stripped-down analogue of Western European medieval feudalism. Then again, they may! Certain writers can make drying paint interesting. If you can get away with this, I doff hat and ascot alike.) One’s to use old language for old stuff with new connotations, a nice trick—one of my favorite examples that works is the position-swap of haute and rest stop cuisine in Samuel R Delany’s Babel-17, in which coq au vin is simple spacer fare, while burgers with French fries and ketchup are the height of elegance. It works because it’s funny, but even such a sharp writer as Delany has to spend half a scene in a very tight book highlighting the change. Another path is just to use existing words for existing stuff with existing connotations where it works, because readers know what a suit is, and they know what a cocktail is, and you can waste a disgusting amount of time trying to explain that a Fantasy Dark & Stormy is, you know, a Dark & Stormy—time that would be better spent building character, developing conflict, accelerating tempo, deepening tension.
I do a bit of all the above, and certainly there are other methods; the final one I listed is a favorite when I’m feeling cheeky or want to cheat in a slip of smooth exposition-free characterization, but it has weaknesses. Sometimes a Gin Mule will just throw people out of a story. And I don’t mean by, you know, a mule made of gin. Though that would be theoretically possible in a fantasy novel that contained, say, boozeomancers.
Hm. Boozeomancers. (*Makes note.*)
Anyway! To my mind this is one of the core fascinations of writing secondary-world fantasy: the creation of a working language and system of social connotations distinct from our own yet within our own, a sort of linguistic virtual machine. Tolkien walked these lines very well. He knew just when his characters should say “Namarie,” and when “I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest!” Sometimes the challenge feels an awe-inspiring. Sometimes it feels like kickboxing in a straightjacket: inherently limiting and on its face pointlessly difficult. But if you can pull it off, you’ll look so damn cool.
To start off—the excellent Mur Lafferty hosted me on her podcast, I Should be Writing. Thanks, Mur! The interview is here, and is great. Alas, though, it was cut off right at the end. Basically the only thing missing is a longwinded analogy I was about to launch into about ideas, poker, and writing. Twitter-person @tamahome02000 asked for the end of the analogy, so here it goes.
The Poker Analogy
Ideas are like the hole cards in poker—in Texas Holdem you’re dealt two cards in the hole, your private hand no one else can see, and five cards to the board, which everyone else can see. All players try to construct the highest hand of five cards from any combination of their hole and the board. In this analogy, the “board” is all the aspects of writing to which everyone has access: the current state of the English language, the publishing market, trends in your chosen genre, whatever.
So you think, ah-hah, to win at writing I just need THE BEST IDEA POSSIBLE. I will never commit to a board unless I am holding the nuts. One of the funny things about Holdem and writing alike, though, is that the board develops over time—you first bet without seeing any board cards. After the first round of betting, three of the five total board cards are revealed. After another round of betting, you see the fourth, and after the third round, if anyone’s still playing, you see the fifth. The best idea you could possibly have in the first round—pair of aces, say, the most valuable hand you can build with only two cards—might not intersect at all with the board. Your buddy went in with Ace-8, but the flop gives her two more eights and there’s nary an ace to be seen—and hell, even if you do crack an ace on the turn, your three of a kind will lose to her eights full of aces.
Because in writing, as in poker, success doesn’t result from an idea (hole) or circumstance (board). You need both of these, sure—but success results from play. Let’s go back to our Ace-eight example earlier. You can’t see your buddy’s hand. You play super conservatively—you never commit unless you have, let’s say, pair of kings or better. All night long. Your buddy, you know, plays a little loose—and plays a wider range of hands, among them Ace-eight. She sees the flop with you, and it’s, say, 4-8-8. She bets conservatively; you commit more, thinking she has a pair of kings, and she re-raises, and all of a sudden you start thinking, shit, she has the eights. But does she really?
And so on.
As poker players go I’m something of a sieve through which money flows, so let me cut to the point: you can always be outplayed, even if you have the best hole cards in the game. Which is just to say, the better a player you are, more you can do with the cards you’re dealt.
Which is not to say that hand composition doesn’t matter! Good players aren’t afraid to fold, as Kenny Rogers reminds us. But they’re not afraid to play, either, and where some people might see garbage, a good player sees opportunity.
And the only way you become a better player, of course, is by playing. So if you’re sitting at the keyboard thinking, gosh, if I write this idea down then it’s gone and I will never have any more ideas ever ever ever, well… you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. The more you hesitate, the less progress you make on your own art.
Look for the right ideas, sure. Sometimes the perfect idea hits you like a bolt from the heavens. Sometimes it doesn’t don’t. A good writer can do something awesome in both cases.
Oh yeah and success.
I have very little idea what I mean by ‘success’ above. I don’t mean making money. (F. Scott Fitzgerald died poor and drunk.) I don’t mean being published by the Big However Many We’re Saying They Are These Days. (Contemporary equivalents of the Big However wouldn’t publish Lady Chatterly’s Lover,Ulysses, or Howl. Virginia Woolf self-published most of her work. Though don’t think that invalidates Publishing, either—it worked for Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Edith Wharton and Ralph Ellison. Pace Frank Baum, there are many roads to the City, though see above as to the question of whether any of these roads is paved with golden bricks.) I don’t even mean showing anyone your work, though I caution folks against taking the Emily Dickinson route. I might mean writing things worth reading; knowing you’ve made something that scares you, or makes you proud, or sends a message, or fights a power, or tells a truth, or mourns what’s lost. I might mean being able to write things worth writing. Though we can’t stop there: we’re in Tautology Country!
As you read this, I’m traveling to the airport to fly south for the International Conference on the Fantastic Arts. I don’t think I’m on any programming, but if you’re there, say hi! I plan on bringing one suit and an assortment of brightly-colored short-sleeved shirts, because new spring in Boston is about as spring-y as new spring in the Borderlands (which makes Canada the Blight I guess?) and I won’t get to wear anything flower-printed in my hometown for another month at least. I’ll be returning from ICFA on Friday, though, so I can be a guest at….
Vericon is Harvard’s student-run convention, and looks to be crazy this year—the con isn’t terribly large, but they have an all-star cast of literary guests. Here’s my schedule, though you really should check out their website for more info.
10am – 11am – Selling Your First Novel – M.L Brennan, Luke Scull, Saladin Ahmed, Max Gladstone – Writing it is difficult, and when it’s done that’s when the trouble really starts. How do you sell your first novel in today’s market? – Lead by Shuvom Ghose (Sever 113)
11 am – 12:30pm Panel on Interactive Media – Max Gladstone, Luke Scull, Patrick Rothfuss – So, this panel is geared towards discussing the challenges and advantages of story-writing for media other than the printed word. How does having to deal with player interactivity affect story? How do you tell a story in conjunction with music and visuals? Those and similar questions will be the focus of this panel. – Lead by Ore Babarinsa (Sever 113)
BOOK SIGNING — You should all come to my signing of course, but some other people are signing whose presence just might be worth your attention, and by just might be worth your attention I mean absolutely come to this signing oh my god look at these people. All of these events are at Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square!
Patrick Rothfuss : 1pm – 2pm Jo Walton & Scott Lynch : 1:45pm – 2:15pm M.L. Brennan, Saladin Ahmed & Max Gladstone : 2:30pm – 3:00pm Luke Scull & Greer Gilman : 3:15 – 3:45 pm
1pm – 2pm – Seen One Elf, Seen ’em All – Saladin Ahmed, Scott Lynch, Max Gladstone, Shira Lipkin
How do you get away from codmedieval Europe fantasyland? There’s am exciting recent trend towards more original kinds of fantasy worlds, ones drawing on other cultures. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this new approach? – Lead by Carl Engle-Laird (Sever 113)
3:30pm – 4:30pm – Worldbuilding Panel – Patrick Rothfuss, Saladin Ahmed, Scott Lynch, and Max Gladstone
This panel focuses on crafting a setting, and how one actually builds the story. Further, it’ll also touch on influences, both literary and culture, for your writing, as well as what you think goes into your work. Lastly, It’s also an opportunity for guests to ask you about details of your worlds, and discuss the things off the beaten path in your works. – Lead by Carl Engle-Laird
8pm – 10pm – Milk and Cookies -Lowell Lecture Hall – This is totally optional, so if you’re exhausted by this point, feel free to return to your hotels and rest. That being said, if you want to do any sort of readings of your own work, or even just share some your own personal favorite works, please participate! To explain the concept of Milk and Cookies, it’s a HRSFA/HRSFAN tradition where we all get together and share short stories in a circle (or in the case of Vericon, several circles), while sharing snacks, particularly the eponymous milk and cookies.
And, because I have no regard for your personal productivity—turns out there’s a Two Serpents Rise page over at TV Tropes! *sniff* I’m so happy….
Happy, and as you may have guessed from the above, busy. That’s all for this week. Have a great few days, see you this weekend maybe, and catch you on the flip side!
Here’s a great, and also weird and interesting, thing about science fiction and fantasy: anyone (with a little money) can vote on the Hugo award, the flagship award in genre. I’ve written before about why I think that’s incredibly cool, and the old logic still applies: it gives final responsibility for what we want the genre to look like to the people who read books and watch TV and play games.
Now, it’s not free to vote in the Hugo Awards, which sucks because there are plenty of folk who want to vote but can’t afford it. Still, the franchise is cheaper this year than it was last year—for about US $40, you can buy a supporting membership to this year’s WorldCon, which happens to be LonCon 3 in London. The supporting membership doesn’t let you actually attend the con, but it does let you nominate works, and vote. As an added bonus, all supporting members receive the Hugo Voter’s Packet: electronic copies of every nominated work. In practice, this means five or six novels, novellas, short stories, and graphic novels, and that’s just to start. Even if you’re thinking of this as a purely financial transaction (which you shouldn’t, because authors don’t get paid for the works they submit to the Hugo Voters’ Packet, but still), you come out well ahead on the deal. It’s a great way to discover new writers, and to encounter works you might have missed. I discovered Kim Stanley Robinson through last year’s packet, and now he’s one of my favorite writers in genre. (Seriously, 2312 is absurdly great why aren’t you reading it RIGHT NOW?)
Anyway, if this sounds good to you, follow the directions below!
Obviously I’d be pleased if y’all thought I was worth a nomination in one of these categories. That said, there was a ton of great work published this year.
For novels, this year saw the publication of The Shattered Pillars (second in Elizabeth Bear’s awesome Central Asian-rooted fantasy series), and Republic of Thieves (the Gentlemen Bastards return!), and Ancillary Justice (The Left Hand of Darkness meets Dune, sort of, and it’s great), and Bleeding Edge which, well, it’s only sort of science fiction and Thomas Pynchon really doesn’t need the help but I’d be tickled to bridge the genre gap by nominating Pynchon of all people for a Hugo award. Not to mention the books I desperately need to catch up on: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, MaddAddam, Something More than Night, The Golem and the Jinni, The Accursed, The Lives of Tao, the most recent James SA Corey book, etc. etc. etc.
Comics (or Best Graphic Story): I’m in love with Hawkeye, Saga, and Chew at the moment. There are certainly other projects out there that merit attention, but I’m putting those three on the nomination ballot without a second thought.
As for Best Dramatic Presentation: basically you should just go read Andrea Phillips’ post on the subject, because she nails it. If you don’t want to click on the link (and why do you hate links, really? Meditate on that.): she argues that this is the time to nominate a game for Best Dramatic Presentation. I wholeheartedly agree. An immense amount of creative genre work is being done, today, in interactive media. Ignoring that is just silly. This was a great year for games with speculative elements, everything from The Last of Us all the way to the mad mad mad-fest of Saints Row IV.
And on a completely unrelated note: Arisia!
I’m on… um. A staggering number of events at Arisia next weekend. If you’re in the Boston area, drop by!
Friday, Jan 17, 7:oo PM—Autograph: Gladstone, Grant, Linzner— Writing, Signing— 1hr 15min— Autograph Space (1E)
Autograph session with Max Gladstone, April Grant, and Gordon Linzner.
Saturday, Jan 18, 5:00 PM—Rebuild of Evangelion— Anime, Panel— 1hr 15min— Revere (2)
[COME SEE ME BE A TOTAL ANIME GEEK GUYS IT WILL BE SO MUCH FUN / I AM GOING TO GET MYSELF IN SO MUCH TROUBLE]
3 out of 4 of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies have come out in Japan. It is a very unusual remake that starts veering away more and more from the beloved series that it comes from. Are they improvements on the originals or a confusing money grab? What do people expect from the anticipated conclusion?
Sunday, Jan 19, 10:00 AM – Interactivity in Fiction— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Faneuil (3W)
[I TALK ABOUT CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS AND GAMES AND STUFF]
Fiction has never been a static experience, but we’ve recently gained whole new vocabulary for talking about its interactive aspects, and a generation of readers are coming of age who have never not known explicitly interaction-centered entertainment in addition to more traditional fiction. What are some of the techniques creators in other media are using to put more and better narrative into their interactive works and what, if anything, can authors learn from their attempts and techniques?Heather Albano, Erik Amundsen (m), Max Gladstone, Forest Handford, Carolyn VanEseltine
4:00 PM – Why Root for Monarchies? Class and Fantasy Lit— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Faneuil (3W)
Most of us come from democratic nations and don’t have a fancy title. As history classes taught us, most of our ancestors fought the tyranny of monarchs and aristocrats. But when it comes to fantasy literature, people seem to love protagonists who hold titles or become queens and kings. Why do we root for the aristocrats? Why aren’t more fantasy protagonists truly from the lower classes and stay there? Where are the fantasy revolutionaries?
5:30 PM – Spirituality in Fantasy and Science Fiction— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Faneuil (3W)
The Chronicles of Narnia are famous for, among other things, incorporating many of C.S. Lewis’s Christian beliefs. But did it inspire its readers to be more religious? Are there fans of fantasy and science fiction who look to their favorite works in times of crisis or to inspire their faith (or, possibly, lack there of)? What works of literature have people in fandom, whether Christian, Wiccan, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or none (or all) of the above, found formative to their beliefs?
7:00 PM – So You Think You Can Write a Fight?— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Griffin (3E)
Come find out how viable your fight scene really is. An experienced panel of talented authors, martial artists, and maybe one hapless would-be victim will take your quick fight scene and act it out while our esteemed panelists help you work out the physical and literary kinks. Please no epic wave battles.
Monday, Jan 20, 10:00 AM — This Book Looks Nothing Like My Ren Faire!— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Adams (3W)
Especially since the success of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a large number of secondary world fantasy series have been set in worlds that greatly resemble pre-industrial Western Europe. Many fantasy novelists are now creating worlds that draw inspiration from other global cultures. This panel will discuss works by writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, Saladin Ahmed, N.K. Jemisin, and David Anthony Durham and why these non-Western settings are so important.
11:30 AM — Stick with It! Complex, Rewarding Literature— Literature, Panel— 1hr 15min— Burroughs (3E)
Most of the time, the SF we read is easy enough to get through; however, at times, we’ve picked up or been recommended a work of SF only to find it more than we bargained for. Not a tedious read, but rather an epic journey, fraught with trials and tribulations yet eminently Worth It. What favorite works of the panelists’ are difficult to get through, but ultimately worth the read? How does one make the reading of one of these diamonds more feasible without losing any of the effect?
Reviews for Two Serpents Rise have started to appear in the wild! Fantasy Book Critic had this to say: “I love how organically all of these issues work in the social and political framework, the characters, everything. I love that there are no taboos on sexual orientation or on having sex at all. The characters are all riveting, even when I don’t like them — I particularly loved the Red King, who is creepy as anything and completely amazing.
All this and I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning the whole story is built around economics and the logistical realities of providing water to an urban settlement in the desert and the risks of water conflict — I challenge anyone who thinks fantasy doesn’t deal with reality and is purely about escapism to take a harder look at this one.“
TOMORROW, I’ll be doing an AMA on r/Fantasy. Come by the r/Fantasy website around 9pm Eastern Time. Ask me questions! Ask me any questions you can possibly imagine!
November 9 I’ll be signing at Enigma Books!
And, on November 14, I’ll be part of Wellesley Books’ Breakout Author Evening—so come by if you’re in the neighborhood and see me break out of things. I think that’s how this works.
I loved Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro is a smart director. He knows how to be subtle, how to build emotional complexity and thematic depth. And, miraculously, he’s secure enough in his self-perception to make a movie that goes one step beyond the self-conscious ironic distance one might bring to a giant robots vs. giant monsters movie in 2013, beyond deconstruction & satire, to rebuild the genre with love. Sometimes this reconstruction feels so on-the-nose that you have to laugh; at least in my theater, there were a lot of laughs at what might have otherwise seemed inappropriate places, but they didn’t feel derisive to me—more like laughs of surprise at the boldness and joy with which the movie embraces scenes, lines, and shots where other movies would feel compelled to wink at the camera in a ‘see, audience, we’re actually way too sophisticated to believe or say this stuff honestly, but we know you’re going to eat it up so here you go’ cynical sort of way.
That subject deserves more words. But, thanks to Alyssa Rosenberg tweeting a bit about rewatching the Hellboy movies, I spent a piece of last night thinking about internal and external danger, and how they work best when twinned both in scope and texture. Let’s compare Pacific Rim to Hellboy. I don’t want to go on to Hulk-length about this, though the subject probably deserves that kind of focus (and an analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth which I only saw once a few years back & so don’t feel competent to discuss right now and anyway this blog’s already way long), so this’ll be cursory, but I wanted to use this space as a scratchpad for the idea. Maybe I’ll develop it later.
The first Hellboy movie focuses on a series of jealousies and denied emotions at a Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development dedicated to protecting the USA (and the world) against Cthonic creepy crawlies. Hellboy, the main character, is a “good demon” who has (obviously) identity issues, a strained relationship with his surrogate father, and a tense and complicated romantic history with his ex, Liz, herself a pyrokinetic scarred by her powers’ manifestations. The introduction of a WASPy FBI agent into this mix further stresses the already-tense situation by creating jealousies between Hellboy and Liz. Meanwhile, Evil is Brewing in the form of Cthulhu-worshipper Rasputin (yeah, that Rasputin) and his undead Nazi henchmen. Rasputin wants to bring the old gods back to control / destroy the world; he has a baby old god wriggling inside him, literally. To accomplish his goal, he’s releasing tentacly demon-dogs into the human world; to stop him, the BPRD must come together as a family in spite of their various issues, and fight back.
Nazi Cthulhu-cultists are excellent bad guys in and of themselves, but they’re even more perfect when set against the BPRD’s dysfunctional-family dynamic. The BPRD characters don’t know or understand themselves, and are at their best in the heart of that struggle—this isn’t a story of deciding to be Good as opposed to Bad, more a story about internal conflict being a part of heroic life. Both Nazism and Cthulhu worship (at least in Hellboy) seem to be all about Secret Truths: on the surface the world looks like X, but when you see deeper it is actually Y, and once you understand the world’s Y-ness then all conflict disappears and you can act free of doubt and pain. Despite their ideology, though, the bad guys in Hellboy tend to have weird and evil uncanny stuff inside them—a wriggly monster in the case of Rasputin, sand in the case of the undead ninja doctor. (I don’t remember if there’s anything evil inside Ilsa, outside of Nazi.) Seeming certainty and perfection disguises wriggly horror.
I don’t want to go into spoiler territory with Pacific Rim, but suffice it to say that del Toro shows us kaiju—giant monsters—as overwhelmingly enormous threats, big and intense and vicious and easily identifiable. The relationships among the protagonists are similarly overwhelming and intense and vicious and unmistakeable—they wear even their secrets on their sleeves. The towering, city-leveling nature of the monsters gives these big, sincere emotions space to grow. In any other movie they might seem cramped or foolish; here the heroes need these gigantic naked issues in order to rise against monsters of such scale.
Not that all giant monster movies or anime must take the same tactic! But the way one handles the monsters, I think, must change to match the quality of emotion. Neon Genesis Evangelion deals with BIG, horrifying, squicky repressed psychological issues—and so the Angels (Eva’s kaiju) need to be every bit as immense, insidious, and squicky, wriggling into computer systems, boring deep into the NERV center (yes, that’s the real name) where our protagonists live, or straight-up invading main characters’ minds via Hallelujah Chorus (it makes sense when you watch the show). FLCL’s growing-up story, by contrast, straddles the line between sublime and ridiculous, and deals much more frankly with lust and love—the monsters as a result being similarly over-the-top and as funny as they are terrifying.
Anyway. Good clean fun. See Pacific Rim, and get the soundtrack.
On a related note: I had an AMAZING time at ReaderCon. Thanks so much to everyone I met, and talked with—y’all are great, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross!